Work, Community College, and Work-Based Learning: Avoiding False Choices

Blog Post
Three nursing students consult with a doctor while a patient lies on a hospital bed next to them
May 10, 2024

Community college students tend to take on a lot. Between school, caregiving, and work, there may be many competing demands for their time and attention. Many community colleges offer a variety of work-based learning opportunities, but it often happens that the schedule, pay, and benefits (or lack thereof) don’t work well for older students, especially those already working. So, let’s assume that work is a part of all community college students’ lives in some way. Below, we’ll talk about three potential false choices that may arise for these students and how different work-based learning strategies can honor the work these students are doing and help foster their success.

  1. Enjoy the stability of a regular job, or give it up for a short-term work-based learning experience (paid, if you’re lucky). Salt Lake Community College’s Campus Internship Program (CIP) offers a wide variety of paid, on-campus positions that start at one semester in length but, as long as a student meets eligibility criteria, can be renewed until the student graduates. When we interviewed CIP leaders in 2021, they shared that 90 percent of participants stay with the program until they earn their credential. The strong retention of CIP participants at SLCC and in the internship program speaks to the value of providing a reliable, longer-term source of work for community college students. As the CIP program shows, it’s possible for community college students to engage in college-facilitated work-based learning and avoid worrying about where they’re going to work every time a semester concludes.
  2. Spend your time earning money at your current job, or spend your time earning college credit. As we mentioned last week, many community college students already have jobs that work well for their schedules and needs, and they’re in no rush to give up these jobs. Given this reality, colleges may want to consider how to offer credit for learning gained through this work experience and help students glean the most they can from it, whether it is in their aspiring professional field or not. At the University of Maryland - Global Campus, eligible students can apply to work with a faculty member and their work supervisor to determine how the student can earn credit for new knowledge and skills gained on the job through the Workplace Learning initiative. The employer ensures the student is completing tasks that align with course content at UMD - Global, and the faculty mentor helps the student reflect on and process what they are learning at work.

In a recent survey of community college students in one western state, 55 percent said earning credit for work experience would help them succeed in college. Among survey respondents who had stopped out of community college, 37 percent said they would seriously consider coming back to college within a year if offered credit for work experience. And 80 percent of stopped out students named work as a reason they discontinued their enrollment. Taken together, it’s clear that many students want to integrate work and their education. However, when forced to choose, they may very well choose work first. Looking at students’ commitment to work as an asset and offering credit where appropriate can stop making work and school a false choice.

  1. Participate in hundreds of hours of unpaid practica or clinicals, or pick a different field of study. This is a tricky one, especially for students who also already have a job they value and, like many community college students, might have a pretty tight budget. Colleges could take a page out of the apprenticeship book and offer pay for the many hours students take building their hands-on skills. In some cases, students can’t be paid for clinicals for regulatory or liability reasons, but there are still ways to get resources to students taking on these experiences. For example, Missouri State University nursing students participating in the Earn as You Learn partnership with Mercy Hospital Springfield were eligible to receive stipends for clinical hours to help make ends meet as they completed their nursing program. And the state of Oklahoma used federal pandemic relief funds to offer pay for student teaching. Individual community colleges may not have the resources to offer pay for these experiences, but as the examples in this section show, employer partners, states, and even the federal government can step in to ensure that required work-based learning experiences are compensated, especially in critical fields like teaching and nursing. While implementing some of these strategies may be easier said than done, the main takeaway is there are ways to provide students with more choices than either opting to engage in many hours of unpaid work-based learning or choosing another field of study without such requirements.

Working is a normal part of most community college students’ lives, though that looks different for different students. Whatever type of work a student is doing, and whatever their goals may be, it’s up to policymakers and practitioners to ensure that students are offered accessible, feasible options to integrate work and learning. While we still have a long way to go, creative states, colleges, and employers are showing us all ways to help working students avoid false choices.

Related Topics
Higher Education Access and Affordability Workforce Development & CTE