The Economics of Experience-Based Higher Education

By Lawson, Larry L. | Atlantic Economic Journal, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The Economics of Experience-Based Higher Education


Lawson, Larry L., Atlantic Economic Journal


Introduction

This article discusses some of the economic aspects of experience-based teaching and curriculum in higher education. The use of the analytical tools of economics to study education became an organized effort with Becker's (1964) pioneering work on human capital, and provided a framework that focused primarily on the allocative efficiency of investment in education by individuals and governments. Subsequent work in this area has examined technical efficiency as well, resulting in the development of production functions that specify the impact of a variety of inputs such as school variables (teachers, equipment, curriculum, and class size), family variables, and peer variables (O'Sullivan, 2003). Many of the findings with respect to the productivity of the various inputs have shown a reassuring international consistency (Woessmann, 2003). From the outset, however, most of this work has examined K-12 education, with little work in the area of higher education. Recent study of higher education has confirmed many of the earlier insights and has extended this work through the addition of intrinsic student variables such as class attendance and self-study (Bratti & Staffolani, 2002).

The study of experience-based higher education is, for the most part, a more recent phenomenon. (1) Experience-based education itself has long been a part of the curricula of schools of medicine, education, engineering, and the natural sciences, but this pedagogical approach has been less prevalent in other parts of university curricula. The conceptual promulgation of experience-based education can be traced back at least as far as early twentieth century works by Whitehead (1929) and Dewey (1938), both of whom argued that knowing and doing cannot be separated. This view has been reinforced more recently by research in cognitive science suggesting that facts stored in memory without applications are not particularly useful in later problem solving (Bransford, 1993). In addition, recent discussions of "situated learning" suggest that it may not be possible to learn pure abstractions at all, as the process of recall requires linkage to related concepts (McLellan, 1995). And, along the same lines, some researchers have suggested the need to recognize "knowledge of practice" as a separate but equally valid type of knowledge (Kenworthy-U'Ren, 2005).

As pointed out by former US Commissioner of Education and President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Edward Boyer, the failure to link academic knowledge and practical knowledge has undermined the standing of higher education in society (Boyer, 1996; p. 14): "Increasingly the campus is being viewed as a place where students get credentialed and faculty get tenured, while the overall work of the academy does not seem to be particularly relevant to the nation's most pressing civic, social, economic, and moral problems." Despite the large and growing body of evidence regarding the value of experience-based education, its inclusion in most university degree programs has been meager until the past decade. Indeed, the increasing prominence of professional schools that utilize more experiential education, such as internships, practica, and cooperative education, may be viewed at least partly as a response to the demand for more directly practical knowledge.

In addition to the cognitive benefits of experience-based education, research has shown that community-based experiential learning may result in college graduates that are more prepared than others to be leaders in business and civic organizations (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001 ; Middleton, 2005). Experience-based education is believed to provide the breadth needed for balance in more technical professional programs such as business (Godfrey, Illes, & Berry, 2005; Mintzberg, 1975). Its inclusion in liberal arts programs enhances student understanding regarding the applicability of their knowledge (Eyler, 1993; Eyler & Giles, 1999). …

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