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The Academic Empowerment of Work-Based Learning

In my work before joining the CAEL team, I was the director of an experiential learning program that worked primarily with undergraduate students. The program was aimed at work-based learning and real-time reflection, while also helping these students prepare to enter the workforce by gaining experience in activities tied to their academic programs. Many of the students enrolled in these internships and career exploration activities found themselves navigating work-based learning for the first time— combining the academic theory they were learning in the classroom with real-world application. In my conversations with these students, a sense of initial anxiety was often quickly replaced with excitement and enthusiasm as they took ownership of their new roles. Repeatedly, I witnessed the opportunity to practice and demonstrate classroom learning in a real-world setting provided the foundation for newfound confidence and professionalism. This is the beauty of experiential learning– the opportunities to understand and apply concepts in a way that transforms the experience into knowledge and self-efficacy. 

Adult learners come to our institutions with a wide variety of experiences accumulated before enrolling in coursework. What a gift! These experiences flavor the collective academic experience with a unique type of magic and should be revered accordingly. Yet, adult learners are also special in terms of what they need in a postsecondary learning opportunity. These students may have previous professional experience, or they may have some credentials but no degree. The label of "student" may not be among the first in a list of identities an adult learner would use to describe themselves. Parent, spouse, employee, or many other identities may take precedence when they describe themselves. Each identity carries unique challenges–and successes–that may be continually prioritized above academic endeavors.

Showing how the higher education landscape has changed, the research supporting CAEL’s new ALLIES Framework indicates that adult students comprise 33% of total undergraduate enrollment, and 39 million unenrolled adults have some prior college learning, but no degree. The association of postsecondary credentials to higher pay and career advancement is often what brings adult learners to pursue education. According to the research behind the ALLIES Framework, 80% of never-enrolled adult students report "useful to career goals" as a critical motivating factor in their pursuing postsecondary education. Therefore, fostering robust career connections between institutions and the labor market create impactful partnerships that benefit students, higher education institutions, and the workforce.

I think back to the experiences my students had and all they learned from their applied experiences. Some discovered an exciting career pathway they had not previously considered, and others honed their academic or career trajectories in response to these experiences. Work-based learning provides "academic empowerment," giving these students a heightened sense of ownership over their futures.

Through these impactful partnerships with the workforce, employers developed mutually beneficial relationships both with emerging professionals and the partnering institution. Likewise, through this type of deep workforce connection, higher education institutions can embed work-based learning into their academic pathways, allowing the labor market to be supported. Participating students gain tangible success earlier in their academic trajectory- whether that be through training, credit for prior learning (CPL), short-term credentialing, or other means. Students develop a sense of academic empowerment that encourages persistence. The cycle is reciprocal and of continued benefit. Our adult learners are a critical population to the higher education landscape and the general workforce, and supporting experiential learning within this population supports a more robust institutional experience that recognizes the whole learner, including their experiences both in and outside the classroom.

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