Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: A Perspective on Using Apprenticeship to Study Key Issues in Higher Education

Mark Dunneback
Learning Abstracts

At a time when higher education faces a myriad of changes and challenges, a long proven model of success resurfacing within many community colleges might provide valuable insights. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel of higher education, leadership might look to the wheelmakers—namely, apprenticeships within workforce development—for experience and guidance. This perspective article explores how a resurgence of growth and renewed interest in apprenticeship programs could provide a benchmark and a platform for testing and evaluating contemporary higher education initiatives in the community college.

Forces of Change in Education

A litany of forces—internal and external, economic and political, cultural and social—continues to pressure the higher education system to change its methodology. Whether, for example, one personally supports the free tuition movement or does not believe the middle-skills gap is real is not at debate here: The larger public has formed opinions about these and other academic challenges, and seeks an effective, timely response (Bessen, 2015; Kent, 2016). Some of these responses, whether taken individually or as a whole, could potentially reinvent the wheel of higher education. Educators are at a turning point. Change is imminent. Educators must learn to roll with changes or risk being rolled over.

Those with experience in change management recall the valued teachings of Kotter and Deming, and appreciate the importance of having committed stakeholders and a well-defined vision and strategy aligned with meaningful metrics to support success. Many with experience in academia realize the difficulty of defining and measuring change in an environment where the student population is dynamic, critical stakeholders are allowed certain purviews through academic freedom, and what scant data is collected can be largely subjective and often confusing. In many cases, the data results are not comparable across or between different colleges (Rogers, 2013). Enacting changes through policy initiatives that encompass all of higher education is a difficult challenge. Fellow educators are unlikely to listen or follow if they cannot, or do not want to, understand (Knapp, Glennie, & Charles, 2016) policy, and any proposed change to the academic mantra must be proven valid before it will be widely accepted. Therefore, a thorough study of the educational process must come before mandating standardizations across higher education.

Challenges Implementing Educational Change

Experience in the commercial and industrial world shows that changing too many variables at once can have detrimental consequences to both study and process, especially when one does not have full understanding or control of the remaining variables, or a good way of assessing the outcomes. Take the currently popular enticement of free tuition mentioned earlier as an example. Free tuition is just one element or variable of a college education’s true costs: Realizing the perceived benefits of free tuition might create other unforeseen hardships. For example, balancing work, school, and family schedules, or procuring funds to cover additional travel expenses might negatively influence one’s ability to provide financial well-being to self or family, as the opportunity costs of going to college “for free” are weighed against entering or staying in the workforce. Perhaps most difficult to predict in the free-tuition study is the final outcome: the ultimate return on investment. Will free tuition correlate into a better career, or a better socioeconomic position? Will the recipient—or the provider—realize any benefit, and how will those benefits be measured accurately and precisely? Tuition is but one variable bantered about in the higher education test plan: assessing credentialing of courses and instructors; appraising previous work or military experience; unbundling courses; and evolving definitions of credit, delivery methods, engagement strategies, and competency-based learning—a plethora of options abound, each variable potentially creating more confusion than clarity.

How Higher Education Arrived Here

How did we get to this current state of confusion about our higher education system? There are several plausible reasons, each spawning a different response. Perhaps the most prevalent motive in society today is fear about our economy and our state of socioeconomic well-being. The United States is experiencing a perceived middle-skills gap. Whether we in higher education accept that gap as fact or fiction, its suggested existence creates an urgency to change the status quo of education. Companies decry current teaching practices, stating that colleges no longer provide employees with the requisite skills. Some colleges and universities, for their part, still cling to the traditional supply-and-demand model of education: educate the masses and the jobs will come. A quick review of job placement after graduation proves this traditional education model no longer holds true for many professions (LaBombard, 2016; Shapiro, Dundar, Wakhungu, Yuan, Nathan, & Hwang, 2016; Svrluga, 2015). What variables led to this resultant gap? What variables can higher education change? Where can we safely and rigorously study or validate our theories on student success, job placement, credentialing? It seems the list of variables grows or changes faster than rigorous study can accommodate.

Consider another vantage point of the same skills-gap scenario, one playing out in communities throughout the United States today: We tell junior and senior high school students they need to get a college education. We tell them they need this education to get a good job. Three to six years later, we tell these same individuals that their college education is not relevant or that they need more relevant work experience. At the same time, we also tell their predecessors they need new or different education; that the ten or more years of work experience they just completed is no longer relevant. How can we ensure students receive relevant education and relevant work experience in a meaningful setting and an application-style environment that provides outcomes and measures to ensure they are learning what we want them to learn and achieve?

Who We Are: A Critical Variable for Change

First, let us consider who makes up the we in the preceding paragraph. We are high school guidance counselors, high school teachers, high school leaders, high school friends—one of the first circles outside a high school student’s immediate family, and one of the greatest influencers of this student’s future self. We are also college recruiters, college admissions officers, and college faculty—representatives of the future that our society has deemed necessary for success. We are parents and employers, a group with recession-proven experiences of what goes wrong when one does not have the skills required to succeed in a society of ever-emerging and evolving technology. Lest we forget, politicians and the media do a fair share of trying to influence students, too. We are all responsible. It is incumbent upon us all to provide a reasonable solution for change.

An Experimental Design: Build Upon What Apprenticeships Already Know

What if we could provide these students with both a relevant education and relevant work experience? What if we provide education and work experience at the same time, with little financial cost to the student or the community? What if we could get employers on board as significant stakeholders to help identify the expected outcomes? What if we could all agree upon the variables at the start of the study, to ensure everyone gets what they want in the end? To some of us with ties to workforce and career development, such an approach should sound familiar. Apprenticeships are a historically proven method of combining the benefit of both education and career experience in a real-time applications learning environment. In the apprenticeship model, education and work focus on proving understanding and achievement through time on task and assessment. Students are evaluated on competency and completion, often by the end user, not just graded or rated by an intermediate assessor. Working as an apprentice, under the leadership of a trained journeyperson or mentor, provides guidance and support from a shared perspective and appreciation of the job. Thriving at both work and school at the same time instills rigor and appreciation for success, which then leads to future success.

The revitalized apprenticeship movement could provide a benchmark and a laboratory for testing and validating higher education initiatives. Apprenticeship and similar workforce development programs already provide an established link to community stakeholders. These programs provide faster feedback on curriculum relevance than traditional two-year program review processes do. The graduates provide direct correlational data on careers and job placement. Apprenticeship programs are often a smaller scale of the larger parent institution, operating in the same environment, in a similar culture, with similar budgetary and community concerns. The learning gained by studying within one’s own environment is more transferable than that learned from another institution, another geography, another culture. Showing or proving success on one’s own campus negates the “can’t do that here” or “it won’t work now” arguments of naysayers. Fellow educators will typically listen and follow campus colleagues to a new understanding when shown homegrown evidence of success (Knapp, Glennie, & Charles, 2016); and evidence suggests apprenticeship programs are successful (Olinsky & Steinburg, 2013; Parilla & Berube, 2015; U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.).

What the Apprenticeship Model Can Teach Us

Five significant learning opportunities embedded within apprenticeships are engagement, delivery, language, curriculum, and integration (See Figure 1). These opportunities can be a starting point for learning what apprenticeships can teach us. Each opportunity is briefly discussed below, followed by reflection questions relevant to challenges facing the traditional two-year education model.

Figure 1. Wheel of Education

  1. Language Matters. Apprenticeship is sometimes considered in negative connotations of dirty, poorly lit work environments, indentured workers, long hours. It may remind parents of industry associated with layoffs. Nevertheless, apprenticeships across the country are on the rise.
    1. Reflection: What is being done to overcome old perceptions?
  2. Engagement matters. Employers must be involved at the start of the conversation when community colleges explore offering apprenticeship options. This is especially important in the traditional USDOL apprenticeship model, as sponsorship by an employer is often required to gain entry. Engagement is paramount to any new educational initiative that hopes to place graduates.
    1. Reflection: How are employers and stakeholders engaged?
  3. Delivery matters. Apprenticeships are concentrated on supporting employers, with classes often offered to accommodate work schedules. Delivery might be on-ground, online, or hybrid. Courses might be unbundled and repackaged to accommodate specific needs while still preserving integrity and affordability. In granting academic credit, options other than the Carnegie unit shouldbe considered. Competency-based measures and credit for external experiences are two plausible alternatives (Fulton & Holly, 2017).
    1. Reflection: What delivery works, and when does it work best?
  4. Integration matters. Retention is more likely when students feel a sense of belonging. Apprenticeships provide community on two planes simultaneously, as the student is also an employee. Turnover is low. Remedial or repetitive coursework is rare. Teamwork and sense of camaraderie are high (Olinsky & Steinburg, 2013; Parilla & Berube, 2015; U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.).
    1. Reflection: How else can integration benefit student-school-employer relationships? Where else in the college would this integration be useful?
  5. Curriculum matters. Today’s learning must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely (SMART). Apprenticeships are a centuries-old, well-proven method for this kind of learning, and are finding ways to bring life experience back to education. They provide instant feedback and apply nearly instant corrections.
    1. Reflection: In what ways can apprenticeships help educators experience how quickly proactive curriculum changes can occur when stakeholders are engaged?

Modeling Apprenticeship Programs Could Benefit All of Higher Education

Consider these commonly shared challenges:

  • Change and study often require funding; time-based grants may not last long enough to ensure sustainability.
  • All interested parties need more involvement in education in order to sustain change.
  • Community colleges need help defining what success looks like.
  • Gainful employment and job placement are easier to achieve if the job comes early in the process—as an input as well as a result.
  • Fulfilling the mission is easier with strategic partners and strategic planning than it is with reactionary responses designed to close gaps.
  • Entrenched educators could use apprenticeship programs as a reliable, valid method of proving academic theories and their corresponding effects on the community.

Many of these and other significant challenges are being overcome right now in college apprenticeship programs across the nation. Modern apprenticeships provide a proven conduit connecting education, community, and career. The curriculum in successful apprenticeship courses is more dynamic and responsive to change than is curriculum in traditional educational programs (Olinsky & Steinburg, 2013; Parilla & Berube, 2015). Engagement is integral to the relevance and validity of the program, and feedback on outcomes is timely and fact-based.

There is no need to reinvent strategies or processes to face these challenges. All in higher education could learn from the resurging success of apprenticeship programs and benefit from studying how these programs can be used today in overcoming the challenges our colleges face.


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Mark Dunneback is an assistant professor of in the School of Design and Manufacturing at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.