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‘Learn And Earn’ Is The Future Of Everything Education And Work

Brandon Busteed
Article Date
May 25, 2023

It was the summer of 2014 when it hit me. At the time, I was leading Gallup’s education and workforce development practice and we had just gotten on our hands on the most insight-rich dataset on college graduates ever. We learned that the ‘magic’ of the college curriculum is all about work-integrated learning; graduates who had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning in the classroom were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and thriving in their well-being. That moment and insight is when I first glimpsed the future of education as a blend of learning and earning.

Such a vision seemed compelling but the big questions were about whether and how we might get there. The question on whether was anchored in how few people – students, faculty, parents, policymakers, etc. – understood the criticality of work-integrated learning to student success. And the question on how was stuck in significant doubt about our ability to scale work-integrated learning; despite how important it is for success, only 1/3 of all college graduates hit the mark. Said another way, our higher ed system and employers were failing to provide a vast majority of students with a work-integrated learning experience.

It feels like it has been a couple lifetimes since 2014. But barely a decade later, the trends and signals are now clear that the ‘whether’ and ‘how’ of a learn and earn future are fast being answered:

· We have seen renewed interest and funding for the apprenticeship movement in the U.S.

· Although many universities are struggling to meet enrollment goals, there are white-hot enrollments at co-op universities.

· We have witnessed the rise of micro-internships as a highly effective tool for both students and employers.

· There has been strong growth in the number of companies offering education-as-a-benefit to fund college tuition and other non-degree training for employees.

· Pre-hire training incentives and paid bootcamps have exploded.

· And we are even seeing community colleges paying students to enroll in certain programs.

· The fastest-growing demographic of enrollees in the largest online universities (initially designed to serve working adults) is now traditional aged students (18-24), many of whom are choosing the path so they can work while obtaining their degree, cut their time to degree and avoid student loan debt.

These examples provide ample evidence that the traditional separation of learning and work is no more. It feels as if we have officially hit a ‘ready or not, here it comes’ moment for work-integrated learning in education and learning-integrated work at our places of employment. Sure, there will still be some students (and their parents) who value a learning-alone model for college. But let’s call it what it is: a learning while spending model – which has resulted in $1.76 trillion in student loan debt. For many students and their families, the learning-alone version of college is simply a luxury good at best and entirely unaffordable at worst.

Not only is there an economic driver for more learn and earn models – but perhaps equally or even more important is the efficacy driver identified by the Gallup research. Learning and working – together – create synergies that don’t exist when we do them separately. For example, it isn’t sufficient for a student to have a paid job during college. That alone has no relationship with success later in life. The magic happens when a student has a job or internship where they are able to apply what they are learning in the classroom. And when it comes to workplace efficacy, we have long known that one of the top drivers of employee engagement is having opportunities to learn and grow at work.

The separation of school and work has cost us dearly. It has been both an opportunity cost (losing out on the most efficacious way to learn and work) and a real cost (excessive amounts of student loan debt). It is not a sustainable model going forward. The future of everything in education and work is going to be ‘learn and earn.’…