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Expand students' global experiences

By JOSEPH E. AOUN

8/24/10 1:43 PM EDT

President Barack Obama is calling for the United States to have the highest number of college graduates in the world by 2020.

One program in the federal Higher Education Act has great potential to help achieve this. It gives colleges small grants to establish and expand cooperative education, or “co-op,” programs. Though signed into law in 2008, it has never been funded.

Originally conceived to help working-class students pay for college, co-op programs offer students the opportunity to alternate classroom studies with long-term, paid internships in a wide array of settings — anything from major corporations to nonprofit organizations. This is a time-tested approach: experiential education — the integration of study and practice — has been proven a highly effective way to learn.

It’s a way to work toward Obama’s college graduation goal while also advancing our students’ ability to navigate a rapidly changing and complex world.

Gone are the days when the purpose of higher education was to prepare students for a single job or even a single career. Today, students are likely to have multiple and diverse careers, some in fields that do not yet exist. As a result, our colleges and universities must work to ensure that all students become inquisitive, lifelong learners with a global perspective.

This co-op approach has been a cornerstone at Northeastern for more than a century. We’re in the process of transforming the model in ways that we believe can help students compete with the best in the world. Last year, our students lived and worked in 160 cities, 69 countries and on all seven continents.

They’ve learned about the high-tech industry through co-ops at the Ireland offices of EMC, the data-storage giant. They’ve worked at brokerage firms in Hong Kong, global software companies in India and microfinance organizations in South Africa. Other students have gained valuable business experience by working in the international operations of companies like Microsoft, IBM, Raytheon, the Allianz Group and Johnson & Johnson.

At a time when many college graduates are struggling to find jobs, co-op programs give students a competitive advantage by helping them master the demands of the professional workplace. For example, 76 percent of employers are looking for graduates with meaningful, relevant experience in the work force, according to the latest Job Outlook Survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Though the strength of U.S. higher education stems from its diversity, the federal law that promotes cooperative education holds promise to help all types of institutions meet the president’s ambitious graduation target.

It encourages all colleges — including community colleges, the focus of federal efforts — to come together to build strong experiential education programs. It asks these educational institutions to do their part by matching federal investments with their own dollars. It also ensures accountability, requiring colleges to track the number of co-op students that employers ultimately hire.

Obama and Congress secured unprecedented changes to the federal student aid system this year that could make college more accessible and affordable for millions of students. Now, we in the higher education sector must respond with innovations so that the United States remains the global education leader.

Expanding cooperative education is one powerful way we can get there.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.