06/10/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

The Power of Practical Learning

Two weeks ago, I watched our Class of 2013 cross the commencement stage and accept the diploma that signifies they're ready to take the next steps in life. For most, that means seeking a professional position in which to demonstrate all they've learned in the past four years. Are they ready? That debate continues. Have we done enough to prepare them for life after college? Yes, I believe we have.

Now, more than ever, graduates need to find value in the education they receive. With intimidating unemployment rates and a growing concern over college loan repayment, it's important that we do everything we can to fully prepare our students and give them the tools they need to succeed. And we have to make sure the value of education exceeds the cost.

But how do we accomplish this? Our most powerful means is practical learning - as we've seen in years of cumulative employment data, students who have quality and sustained internship experiences as part of their curriculum leave college with a solid professional network, marketable skills, and recommendations that put them at the front of the hiring queue. These internships can be a short 120 hours or 14 weeks of full time work, located locally, nationally or even internationally - the takeaway is valuable at all levels. Students get a chance to test their planned major and make curricular changes according to experiences; they learn office protocol, professional expectations, and time management. They can take learned principles from the classroom and see them put into action in the workplace. The networking opportunities are endless and highly accessible.

And all that effort spent finding internships is valuable as well - it's a pre-emptive job hunt, a chance to see what it's like to put themselves out there and apply for positions. They learn interviewing skills, the follow-up process, and professionalism - what works and what doesn't.

At Endicott College, our most recent survey showed 77% of our day graduates were employed full time after twelve months (another 16% were enrolled in graduate school), with 87% of those workers employed in a career related to their academic field of study. Additionally, 41% of our graduates reported employment by a former internship advisor or contact. These numbers provide a strong implication that the experiences of internships had a direct impact on our students' ability to find satisfying work after graduation.

As higher education administrators, the basic idea is this: teaching is what we do, and we do it well. But experience is what we can foster - and that combination is a priceless advantage to graduates. Colleges that use sustained, long-term internships as part of the total curriculum know the value of applied learning, and make it a key tool in providing value to students.