Educational Attainment and Co-op Programs

03/06/2011 11:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of my favorite Greek philosophers, Plato, once wrote, "The direction in which education starts a man, will determine his future life." The indisputable fact is that a strong education provides youth with more opportunities for success in the long-run. Of course, there are many cases of individuals who have thrived without any formal education at all, but these cases are few and far between. Nowadays, it seems that a tertiary (university or college) degree only gets you in the door.

You might be surprised to hear that according to the United Nations, the percentage of adults who have attained a tertiary education is 39% in the United States. This compares to 55% for Russia, 46% for Canada, 30% for the United Kingdom, 21% for Greece, and 10% for Italy. Americans are among the most educated individuals in the world. Of course, one of the main differences between the US and other countries is the absence of a nation-wide, state-funded university system of institutions. Nevertheless, American students (and their parents) invest a significant amount of their own disposable income to attain these relatively high tertiary graduation rates.

By the time my three children (Charlie 7, Dino 6 and Tia Maria 4) reach 18-years-old, I believe we will see a fundamental change in how university education will be offered. First, technological advancements will provide students with much easier access to distant educational opportunities. Because of ever-increasing bandwidth, most households will have lightning fast fiber optic internet connections. This will provide children with numerous media-rich, e-learning opportunities so they can immerse themselves in virtual online courses from a variety of institutions such as the University of Phoenix or Open University in the U.K.. In other words, their degrees may in fact be a customized concoction of courses from multiple universities as if they were selecting several meals from a global menu.

My responsibility as a parent is to make sure that my children maintain an active interest in a variety of educational disciplines. Of course, my comments should not be construed as solely supporting virtual universities. On the contrary, nothing beats the physical benefits of a real university campus. Ivy covered buildings, theatre-style classrooms, residence life, cafeteria food and beer drinking can never be duplicated through a network connection into your child's internet browser at home. My point here is that the traditional scope of a university education will be supplemented by options for choosing a globally-flavored curriculum from the comfort of a student's computer or smartphone.

The second significant change in university education will be the implementation of many more co-op programs. These are also referred to as internships, apprenticeships or placements. These programs were first developed at the University of Cincinnati in the early 1900s. Today, the University of Waterloo (in Ontario) has the largest co-op program in the world with more than 14,000 students enrolled. The students that I teach at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University are proud to be registered in Canada's largest MBA co-op program.

Furthermore, the undergraduate students at DeGroote are the beneficiaries of some of the best experiential programs in the country. Formally connecting academic curriculum with real-life world experience is an essential element for learning and professional development. I predict a significant increase in these types of programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. More and more students will attend classes for 4 months, then work for 4 months, then school for 4 months, and so on and so on. This structure embodies the philosophy of "learning by doing" and also gives students a chance to pad their résumés with much needed job experience before they graduate.

Dr. Nick Bontis is a professional speaker, management consultant, author of Information Bombardment, and an award-winning business professor at McMaster University.