What is the impact of work-integrated learning on student success?

December 12, 2014

Academica Group recently completed a multi-phase study for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) that examined student, faculty, and employer perceptions of and experiences with work-integrated learning (WIL). It’s a hot topic in Canadian postsecondary education: the Canadian Career Development Foundation (CDDF) has endorsed WIL as providing youth with opportunities to determine career fit, refine their learning goals, develop specific competencies, and build a network of post-graduation contacts; and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has described WIL as “an essential component to building a highly skilled and productive labour force for an innovative, strong, and growing economy.”

What is work-integrated learning?

First of all, we should define what we mean when we talk about WIL. In a nutshell, WIL describes educational activities that intentionally integrate learning within an academic institution with practical applications in a workplace setting. It’s different from experiential learning—which could include job shadowing or field trips—because of the structured integration of theory and practice. WIL includes apprenticeships, field placements, co-ops, mandatory professional practice, internships, applied research projects, and service learning.

High demand for WIL

There’s currently a lot of demand for WIL. More than two-thirds of Ontario college graduates and almost half of university graduates we surveyed reported graduating with some form of WIL experience. In an earlier phase of the study, we found that 43% of non-WIL college students and 49% of non-WIL university students said they would select a program with WIL if they were beginning PSE over again. 95% of college faculty surveyed and 84% of university faculty surveyed said that WIL was valuable, especially for students. Half of employers surveyed said that they had plans to provide WIL opportunities within the next two years.

There were definitely also some concerns, particularly around issues of compensation for WIL involvement, time management, and the perceived cost of the programs for both employers and students. In general, though, interest in WIL is very high. We ran a quick poll with our StudentVu panel, and 62% said that they planned on participating in some form of WIL during their studies.  

But does it actually work? What impact does WIL have on student success? That’s exactly what the final phase of our project was designed to find out. To do so, we sent a survey to consenting participants 18 months after graduation and asked about employment outcomes, labour market entry, participation, experience, and financial outcomes.

Big benefits for university students

One of the main findings was that WIL participation appears to have a greater impact on the labour market outcomes of university students than on college students. This isn’t that big of a surprise: colleges are by design more career-oriented to begin with, and relatively few college students complete their programs without some kind of WIL experience.

Among university graduates, WIL participants had a lower unemployment rate overall, and business, science, and engineering students who had participated in WIL were found to be significantly more likely to have full-time employment than their non-WIL peers. University students who had participated in WIL also saw an earnings bump: the average annual income of a student who hadn’t completed some form of WIL was $36,813, compared to $45,646 for those who had.

Completing a WIL program also had benefits in terms of “fit”: employed college and university grads who had participated in a WIL program were more likely to feel appropriately qualified for their job, that their job was related to their long-term career goals, and that their job was related to their studies.

The road ahead

There’s more work to be done, though. For example, we learned that students in programs in the arts and humanities and the social sciences realize fewer benefits from WIL than their peers in the sciences, for instance. Integrating WIL into the arts and humanities, in particular, may prove to be more difficult, as such programs don’t offer as clear of a career path as, say, business. Nonetheless, the reasoning for this difference deserves examination. It will also be worth examining whether or not the benefits of work-integrated learning persist over a longer term.

Generally speaking, though, Academica’s findings support the notion that WIL can provide some benefits to students entering the labour market; the research also adds much needed detail to the discussion that can help clarify the value of WIL to colleges and universities.

Read the full report at HEQCO.