EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING: WHO BENEFITS--WHO LOSES?
Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education & Training
University of British Columbia
Abstract: The experiential capital students derive from co-op is a scarce commodity, which demands a high
rate of exchange on the labour market. But, co-op programs employ restrictive access for admission and for
access to workplace learning opportunities. The shift to élite provision effectively reverses the intent of its
founding philosophy and does little to improve the prospects of disadvantaged students.
Resume: Le capital expérientiel que les étudiants obtiennent du régime coopératif est un produit rare qui
impose un taux d'échange élevé sur le marché du travail. Mais, les régimes coopératifs emploient un accés
aux possibilités d'apprentissage en milieu de travail. Le changement vers une disposition d'élite renverse le
but visé de sa philosophie fondatrice, et ne puisse pas faire grande chose pour améliorer les perspectives des
Never in Canada's 130-year history, have business leaders, politicians, educators and union bosses been so
worried about the widening gap between the skills workers have, and the skills industry needs (PEM, 1997).
We are at a crossroads in the Canadian system of higher education. Our universities are not adequately meeting the goal
of producing literate young adults, capable of functioning as responsible citizens and workers. Partly this is because our
institutions offer undergraduate programs based on a traditional disciplinary model, that provides disciplinary depth at
the expense of educational breadth. Consider the following. The curriculum in most undergraduate disciplines,
particularly upper-level courses, concentrates on specialized interests. The skills taught are largely those necessary to
conduct research or professional practice in one particular field. This is of direct benefit to the minority of students who
go on to graduate study. But, the majority of students graduate into an uncertain and rapidly-changing workplace, where
research-skills are valued only by a limited number of employers, and competition for positions is fierce.
In the past, employers looked for employees with a strong work ethic, who would show up regularly and put in 'a good
days work for a good days pay.' Today, global competition and structural economic change have dramatically altered the
way in which hiring decisions are made. Employers now look for 'human capital', in the form of employees with the type
of skills and abilities that reduce their 'time-to-productivity.' Creative-critical thinking and problem-solving
skills--essential to innovation. Communication and team-work skills--to fit into, rather than disrupt, the current
workplace context. Functional literacy--to exploit advances in technology. And an ability to transfer knowledge to other
employees within the firm--thereby contributing to a culture of continuous learning in the workplace, and ratcheting up
the competence and productivity of all employees.
But where can employers find such individuals? How do they ensure they have reliable information on which to base
hiring decisions? Theories of human capital suggest that employers use certain levels of schooling as a way to screen
prospective employees (Arrow, 1973; Becker, 1975;Mincer, 1989). Weiss (1995) argues employers also use education
as a 'sorting' model; that is, as a proxy for unobserved attributes of the applicant. But screening by education is no
longer enough. Employers are becoming increasingly distrustful of traditional academic credentials (Rafiullah &
Rosenbaum, 1996). In addition, they now screen for indicators that prospective employees, once hired, will quickly add
value to a company. Two such indicators currently receiving attention are previous experience in a closely related field,
and possession of 'rare' or in-demand skills .
In a tradition-bound higher education system which emphasizes academics over vocational training, how can university
students gain relevant experience and develop in-demand skills? The traditional system is more concerned with
delivering disciplinary basics. We must look elsewhere for relevance. A solution might be found in cooperative
education (co-op). One of the demonstrated benefits of co-op programs is that the combination of academic preparation
and work experience ensures education is relevant to employment. This is clearly evidenced by the number of co-op
graduates who find continuing employment in their chosen fields (Allen, 1996; Canada, 1996). Relevance also renders
skills portable--an important consideration at a time when the workforce is at its greatest-ever level of mobility.
Co-op education combines classroom and workplace learning using an alternating program to move students between
each context. Co-op students are able to operationalize academic knowledge through relevant, paid, work experiences
with discipline-specific employers. They then bring their on-the-job learning back to the classroom for further analysis
and reflection. In its most basic form, a co-op program allows students to spend a semester in the classroom developing
theoretical knowledge, followed by a semester in the workplace implementing theory and developing skills in practical
application, before returning once again to the classroom to engage in further academic study. This alternating cycle
between classroom and workplace continues for the duration of the undergraduate program. Students are paid 'market
rates' while on work placement with employers. Upon successful completion of the requirements for a degree, students
graduate with an additional 'Co-op Designation' signifying a base of discipline-specific experience. Co-op programs
may be either voluntary or mandatory.
Canadian universities are expanding co-op programs, combining adult education traditions in classroom-based learning
with experiential learning in the workplace. This type of alternation education creates continuous contextualized
learning. It also enables students to develop much sought after discipline-specific experience. Co-op may open new
options for adult learning and provide an alternative to the failed Canadian apprenticeship program. Supporters argue
that co-op provides opportunities for students who might otherwise be denied access to higher education. Critics view it
as a process whereby individual students are screened to feed the production needs of business and industry. Regardless
of how it is viewed, questions are raised. Do co-op programs meet the general education needs of students as well as
providing employability skills? Does co-op reinforce existing structural inequities in society, or resist them as intended?
This paper addresses these questions using data from a recently completed study of co-op education at a major Canadian
university. The theoretical entry point is a model of "capital accumulation." Human capital theory is the container. In it
are embedded the cultural and social capitals (Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1990) through which co-op students are able
to accumulate experiential and intellectual capital. I will provide evidence that co-op students derive specific benefits
from their education that are not readily available to non-co-op students. I will also argue that 'deep-level learning'
(Engeström, 1994; Marton, Hounsel, & Entwistle, 1997), results from continuous transferability between educational
and workplace contexts in structured co-op programs .
The benefits attributed to co-op education are real--co-ops get better jobs (Petryszak & Toby, 1989), get them faster
(Gardner & Koslowski, 1993; Wessels & Pumphrey, 1995), make more money (Somers, 1995), and tend to be more
satisfied with their jobs (Allen, 1996). However, there is disturbing evidence that, despite its history as a social
equalizer, co-op is becoming an élite program (Grosjean, 1999).
While most universities and university colleges in British Columbia offer co-op programs, at Coast University (a
pseudonym) co-op permeates the ethos of the institution. The co-op programs I studied at Coast were selected according
to the following criteria: 1) well established in terms of longevity, and growth in placements over the years; 2) whether
the program was a mandatory or voluntary co-op; 3) evidence of a clearly defined labour market for students in the
program; and 4) if the program could broadly conform to one of the four main categories of knowledge domains that
underpin academic disciplinary cultures: hard/pure, hard/applied, soft/pure, and soft/applied (Becher, 1989). I used a
nested case study method (Merriam, 1988; Stake, 1995; Yin, 1994) combining qualitative (interviews) and quantitative
The student survey was administered to selected classes of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year students (both co-op and non-co-op) in
Business, Chemistry, Engineering, and Geography. Demographic information was gathered on gender, age, ethnic
origin, background work experience, reasons for enrolling in university, and satisfaction with certain components of the
university experience. Students were also able to volunteer for interview. The survey was administered during regular
class time and collected directly. Of the 1,040 survey forms distributed, 1012 were complete and usable, for an adjusted
return rate of 97.3 %. Interviews were conducted with the instructors of each of the classes surveyed to provide insights
into the classroom context.
In order to capture students away from the university on work terms, the survey was conducted in two waves. Following
each wave, in-depth interviews (n=45) were conducted with co-op students from selected programs, chosen from those
who had volunteered on the survey. Non co-op students were not interviewed. Responses to open-ended interview
questions were analyzed and combined with survey data to construct a picture of the co-op student's experience.
Interviews were also conducted with co-op coordinators from each of the programs, directors of co-op, and senior
administrators from the university.
The preliminary results reported here briefly describe the total sample (i.e. co-op and non-co-op). I discuss students'
reasons for enrolling, and their satisfaction with their program. Differences between co-op and non-co-op experiences
are reported. The implications of restricted entry to co-op are made explicit. The results are then discussed in the context
of the theoretical framework outlined above.
Who Are the Students, and Where do They Come From?
Of the students participating in the survey, 62% are male and 38% female. One-quarter (26%) are eighteen to twenty
years of age, 36% are twenty-one to twenty-two, and 25% are twenty-three to twenty-five, and 13% are older. Coast
University draws students from throughout the province as well as other parts of Canada. More than two-thirds of study
participants (68.5%) relocated to attend Coast.
Why do Students Enroll in University?
Students have individual reasons for enrolling in university programs. Participants in this study cited the following:
general self-improvement (92%); in-depth knowledge of a field of study (93%); chance of improved income after
graduation (95%); to acquire job skills (91%). Rated lower was the opportunity to gain a broad liberal education (71%),
and more than three-quarters of all students (77%), were seeking career direction and enrolled to find out what they
would enjoy doing. Slightly more than one-half (57%) enrolled at Coast University specifically to participate in a co-op
Do students have work experience when they enroll?
More than one-half of all students (57%) worked before entering university. They had different motivations for seeking
employment. Some worked for money to pay university tuition (68%), others saw it as an opportunity to gain work
experience (67%), while some (39%) worked to make money for travel, or to take a vacation before enrolling in
university. Only about one-third of students (34%) report that the work they performed was related to their current field
Is the experience of co-op and non-co-op students different?
Co-op students follow a structured articulation between the classroom and the work term, enhancing their skills and
learning about the world of work. Non-co-op students must arrange this type of experience individually. While attending
university slightly more than one-half (51%) of non-co-op students also worked part-time. A much larger number
(88%), engaged in summer employment. While these jobs provided an introduction to the workplace, and financial
compensation, only 28% of non-co-op students found part-time and summer work related to their field of study.
Development of Skills, Knowledge and Opportunities for the Workplace
To discover whether university programs equip students with the skills, knowledge, and opportunities needed to succeed
in the labour market, students were asked to rate their programs. Table 1 below contains the results of co-op/non-co-op
comparisons of these ratings.
Table 1: Skills, Knowledge or Opportunity
|Co-op %||Non-Co-op %|
|Independent Thinking Skills||84.3||88.9||91.0||92.3|
|Decision Making Skills||82.1||88.9||76.6||80.7|
|Specific Job Skills||68.9||67.3||54.5||54.6|
|Information on Jobs||71.8||68.5||46.2||41.6|
|Meet Potential Employers||76.6||64.9||21.4||23.1|
|Chance of Good Income||93.2||85.7||70.4||76.1|
|Labour Market Information||62.8||59.3||33.1||29.2|
It is evident from Table 1 that co-op students to a greater extent than non-co-ops, develop teamwork, leadership,
decision-making, speaking, and job specific skills; receive information on jobs in the field; have an opportunity to meet
potential employers, develop the potential of earning a good income; and obtain current information on the labour
Much of the difference in skill development between co-ops and non-co-ops can be explained by the co-op work term.
For example, co-op students develop teamwork skills by working on project teams during their work terms. Senior co-op students are often given responsibility for a project while on their work term, thereby developing leadership skills.
Decision-making skills and speaking skills are part of the reporting process during the work term. That co-op students
develop specific job skills is understandable when one considers they have an opportunity to 'try out' their skills on
successive work terms as they progress through their program.
Because of terms spent in the workplace co-op students have a substantially greater opportunity to obtain current
information on jobs in the field, and to meet potential employers. For many co-op students the networks established
during these work terms (social capital) prove beneficial during the transition from university to the labour market.
Another advantage that co-op students derive from their program is financial. They are paid 'market rates' while on their
work terms. They develop an understanding of the exchange rates (labour for money) of particular jobs and skill
categories, while they are accumulating industry-specific experience (experiential capital). Then, by selecting
subsequent courses of study they can develop expertise in areas of high, or 'rare' skill demand placing themselves in a
position to command an enhanced income upon graduation.
It is also not surprising that co-op students are nearly twice as likely as non-co-ops to have access to, and benefit from
knowledge of, changes in the current labour market. The alternating structure of the co-op program enables them to
closely monitor changes in labour market trends. Non-co-op students, on the other hand, might begin their studies
expecting to find a career job upon graduation only to find that the market has changed and 'good jobs' in their area of
specialization no longer exist. An example can be seen in the rapid decline of jobs in the natural resource industries in
B.C.. Current and constant contact with the labour market provides co-op students with a decided advantage over their
non-co-op counterparts in the competition for good jobs.
Continuous Contextualized Learning
It has become broadly accepted that learning, as a cognitive function, is context dependent. The basis of learning then
becomes internalization, the transformation of material actions into mental actions. 'Meaningful' learning occurs when
new knowledge merges with and transforms former knowledge, resulting in a higher quality of knowledge. Accepting
that learning is context-dependent, co-op students have opportunities not available to traditional students--they
experience learning in both the classroom and workplace contexts. More importantly, through the structure of the co-op
program, which requires reflection and praxis, students transfer their learning between contexts, providing continuous
learning, which leads to 'deep-level' learning and relevant education.
Given today's emerging information-oriented society, fundamental changes are needed in both the educational and
occupational systems to help persons make the transition from schooling to employment. Co-op students are required to
complete a number of discipline-specific work terms in order to graduate with the co-op designation. Each work term
provides an opportunity to determine the current state of the market for the various branches of their discipline, and
determine where there is a scarcity of skills and qualifications. They can then adjust their courses to gain qualifications in
areas of high demand. This situates them to be able to convert the cultural capital embedded in these scarce
qualifications into economic capital, enabling them to obtain well-paying jobs quickly upon graduation.
Non-co-op students, on the other hand, might spend their entire time in university with little access to the discipline-specific market. Upon graduation, they may find that their investments of time and effort in obtaining the qualification
are less profitable than expected. Changes in the market conversion rate between academic and economic capital can
occur, brought about by changes in demand for specific skills and qualifications.
Regulation of Entry to Co-op
For many students, entering co-op is seen as an investment in human capital. For example, a female engineering student
was certain that a co-op designation, combined with "relevant experience gained on work terms," would launch her
career. A female business student switched from science to business because of the perception of a large number of
unemployed science graduates, and the belief that a co-op accounting degree "would provide greater opportunities for
stable employment." Or consider the male engineering student who felt certain that graduating from the co-op program
would enhance his degree and "provide him with skills which would make him more attractive to future employers."
Students acknowledge the level of screening by grades (GPA) for entry into co-op programs.
They are taking only the people who have a high academic average which may in one sense be interpreted as these people would be successful anyway.
I know a lot of people wanted to get into co-op and couldn't. And a lot people just barely squeaked in and basically, they didn't get very good jobs. They were kind of given the left-overs.
Corroborating evidence for students' claims of screening by GPA can be found in a recent institutional survey of
undergraduates at Coast University (Office of Institutional Analysis, 1999). These results indicate that one-half (50%) of
co-op students graduated from post-secondary school with an average of more than 85%, compared with one-third for
non-co-op students. This difference is especially pronounced at the highest academic level, with more than 21% of co-op
students graduating with an average above 90%, compared with less than 10% for non-co-ops.
Because of the GPA ratcheting-up effect, co-op can be perceived as an increasingly élite program, with access limited to
those with sufficient levels of academic and cultural capital. The institution, represented by the co-op coordinator, is
situated in the role of gatekeeper. One student summed it up thus: "the good work terms are given to those students who
have good grades." Because of their position as gatekeepers, coordinators can be easily construed as misusing their
power. Certainly, student comments indicate at least the potential for abuse.
The preliminary results of this study indicate that co-op students derive specific benefits from their education that are not
readily available to non-co-op students. In particular, co-op students benefit to a greater extent than non-co-ops, from the
development of teamwork, leadership, decision-making, speaking and job specific skills. They receive more information
on jobs in the field, better opportunity to meet potential employers, more chance of a good income, and current
information on the labour market. The results also indicate that through repeated excursions into the discipline-specific
workplace, co-op students come to understand the need for continuing education and begin to develop the habits of
lifelong learning. At the same time, they accumulate relevant work experience and develop a network of contacts to
assist their transition from university to the world of work. And by combining classroom and workplace learning, using
an alternating program to move between each context, co-op students are able to engage in continuous contextualized
learning which leads to 'deep-level learning.' However, the positive outcomes of co-op may be compromised by
increasingly restrictive access, and the development of élite status, which erodes social equity.
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