Work Experience: Two Views

Undergraduate business students are pursuing an increasing amount of real world business experience during their college career, often in the form of internships or cooperative education (co-ops). Sixty-two percent of college students recently surveyed by career publisher said they have or will have an internship this summer, a 21% jump over last year's findings.

Students who want a truly hands-on experience that is directly related to their major or career goals should also consider a co-op. Co-ops and internships are both examples of "experiential learning" (learning by doing) with a few key differences: Co-ops are positions that require students to integrate classroom knowledge into a paid, real world experience, and must be agreed upon by employer, school, and student. The co-op must be directly related to the student's course of study or future career plan. Internships, on the hand, can be paid or unpaid, and aren't necessarily directly related to a student's field of study.


  Why the rush to the workplace? "At many firms that's where they hire people from now," says George Washington School of Business Dean Susan M. Phillips. "[Five years ago] a lot of them [students] would do, maybe one internship, in their junior year as they started thinking about jobs, but now many of them have a different internship every year."

If students become too overloaded, this work can easily come at the expense of academics. Today's undergraduate business educators are sometimes torn between whether their overall goal should be to provide students with a well-rounded liberal arts education and solid business background or an education in how to market themselves to find a job. Unfortunately, sometimes those aims are at odds. Negotiating this dilemma isn't easy.

Sally Blount-Lyon, dean at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, and Peggy Fletcher, dean at Northeastern's College of Business Administration, helm programs that take radically different approaches to the issue. Blount-Lyon discourages students from interning during the school year until they're upperclassmen, while Northeastern's co-op requires that students spend at least one year working full-time during their five-year program. But they are in agreement on one key issue: They do not give students class credit for co-ops or internships. A particularly intriguing choice at Northeastern, considering co-ops in other programs are traditionally taken for class credit.

The two deans recently talked about this balancing act with BusinessWeek reporter Lindsey Gerdes. Here are edited excerpts of her separate conversations with each:

Sally Blount-Lyon, why do you think it's important to limit real-world experience?

Blount-Lyon: We're at an advantage because of our location in New York. Our students can get internships almost by rolling out of bed. We're asking them to wait [for an internship] until junior year. Those who are starting freshman year are missing out [on the campus experience]. Part of your job in college is staying up until 2:00 a.m. debating whether God exists.

What are tangible ways the NYU program encourages students to undertake this kind of exploration?

Blount-Lyon: We limit the number of courses you can take in business, which is one of the things for which I'm proudest. We saw a 10% increase in demand for liberal arts electives in the last year. This means that many more of our students have decided to do minors in the arts and sciences. We believe you have to make sure social impact and ethics are front and center. We have a four-course sequence in social impact and ethics. There's one course in each year of a student's education. The reason we spread it across the four years is to integrate it fully with those other parts such as liberal arts, business courses, and study abroad.

Do your students really need this well-rounded experience to be successful in the future?

Blount-Lyon: Whether we like it or not, business is the dominant social institution of our age. As a result, some of the brightest minds of the generation are being drawn to business. We are routinely seeing students with 1400 or 1500 SAT scores applying to business programs. If we allow these students to only be educated professionally, we will be doing them and society a disservice. They're so bright. They're so motivated. We're trying to help them think in a more balanced way. We have to teach them to think deeply about business as a vehicle for social change.

Peggy Fletcher, what are the advantages of Northeastern's required co-op program?

Fletcher: It really makes our students appreciate what they learn in the classroom. Far too often you hear students say, "Why do I need to know this?" Our students come back, and they know why they need to know that. It makes for wonderful classroom discussions. We use case studies in our upper-level classes because students have experience to bring to the discussion. Their education becomes much more interactive.

They are also much more professional when they graduate. We have a [case study competition] with all Boston area schools. We've won it eight out of 10 years. But the reason we dominate is because our students [are] talking to a group of business people, and they know how to talk to them. They know how to present the material. They're able to analyze the cases quite easily. They have good communication, presentation, and professional skills. They've worked their way through this.

Do many students eventually get recruited for postgraduate full-time positions?

Fletcher: Very often. About 70% get at least one job offer from a previous co-op employer. They don't always take it. The grass is sometimes greener on the other side.

Do you feel this approach ever comes at the expense of giving students a well-rounded, cohesive college experience?

Fletcher: Not really. Students with any accredited business school have to take courses outside of the College of Business. There is room in their curriculum. They can do a minor outside business. They take humanities, art, science, and English. In addition, many students live on campus or immediately off campus, and they try to do some of their co-ops in the Boston area. They partake in student activities, so they're still students.

Some faculty members I have talked to at other undergrad business programs worry about making the undergraduate business experience too professionally oriented at the expense of academic exploration. Do you feel this is an issue with the co-op approach?

Fletcher: The difference for us, unlike other schools that have internships, is that [a co-op] doesn't count for academic credit. Our students aren't able to take an internship and say that's 12 credits. They still have to take all 128 semester hours, so they're getting a full college education. I think that's an issue with some of the other business schools, where they're allowing that to count for credit. That probably is time away from the electives students would be taking. Our students get everything plus the co-op.

Do students ever feel like they're missing out on the traditional college experience because they're working for such long stretches of time?

Fletcher: None of our students do. It's just because this is normal here. Those who work abroad, like the students in the international business program, have an online system, so they all talk to each other no matter what country they're in. Of course, we stay in touch with them, too. With e-mail, they have access to all the library data. And their classmates are off doing the same thing.

Can Northeastern students still study abroad with the co-op requirements?

Fletcher: Most all of our students want to have an international experience. We've developed one-week study programs, short summer programs in other countries, and even offer semesters or years abroad. Also, we provide opportunities for international co-ops, which are becoming more and more popular. When working abroad, their weekends are free and the students seem to enjoy that while getting paid. They don't get paid as well [as a full-time employee post graduation] but it's a much richer experience.

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