This fall, Lakeland University students will "earn while they learn" at the upper Midwest's only non-engineering co-operative education university.
Lakeland's new approach to earning a bachelor's degree will offer significant savings to students. It also takes advantage of a number of regional and national market conditions and addresses the region's employment needs.
Lakeland will partner with local companies to create paid co-op work experiences in positions that fit their academic major, providing money to offset tuition costs.
"The new program is specifically designed to give students real-world work experiences and, at the same time, offset their tuition costs," said Scott Niederjohn, dean of Lakeland's School of Business and Entrepreneurship. "Unlike internships, which are often short-term, temporary assignments, the co-op program will have students working in regular, full-time positions that may last as long as six months."
Lakeland estimates students in the program can earn up to $100,000 in wages and scholarships over their four years, significantly minimizing their student debt after graduation.
For local employers, the move creates a new talent pool at a time when several local companies are struggling to fill positions.
Lakeland will enroll hospitality management majors in its co-op program this fall. Students will work in on-campus jobs as freshmen, and by their sophomore year begin working in the hospitality industry, possibly at one of Lakeland's three partners – The Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, The American Club in Kohler or Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan.
Lakeland will quickly form additional partnerships in other majors within its School of Business and Entrepreneurship, including accounting, business administration, marketing, management information systems and sport management and leadership. Lakeland University President David Black said full implementation will happen within three years.
Traditional-age students attending Lakeland full time at its main campus and part-time students attending Lakeland at one of its seven centers or through online courses will be eligible for participation in the program, depending on their major.
Black said the rising cost of higher education and the decline in the traditional college-age demographic are challenging the business model of a traditional residential campus, especially for private institutions.
"Lakeland and many other institutions are seeing fewer students entering as freshmen and transfers," Black said. "Additionally, more who have enrolled are dropping out, and the overwhelming reason for the decline is financial.
"Students are having a difficult time finding a compelling reason to pursue degrees at private university rates when the value of those degrees is not appreciably different from public college degrees."
Black said the co-op education model is an innovative solution that combines classroom-based studies with practical work experience. Lakeland's partners will pay students for work related to their academic major, and students will select from one of several plans to determine how much of their earning will be applied to their tuition.
"Students will gain two big benefits," Black said. "By the time they're ready to graduate, students will have earned enough money working to significantly minimize student debt. They will also have worked in a variety of entry-level positions which have them positioned for jobs requiring high-level skills in their first job out of college."
Lakeland's board of trustees at its March meeting approved the co-op education concept, which received a strong endorsement from trustee Tryg Jacobson, president of the creative community Jake's Café in Sheboygan. Jacobson's daughter graduated from a co-op education institution, Northeastern University in Boston.
"It works because it provides an opportunity for students to learn on the job for extended periods of time and then use their experiences as a meaningful frame of reference as they learn in the classroom," Jacobson said.
"They also get exposed to corporate cultures they could never experience in a traditional classroom setting. They learn that happiness in whatever profession they choose has a lot to do with the corporate culture that aligns with their personal beliefs. Finally, they earn while they learn. This helps fund their education, and this is huge given the high cost of education today."
Jacobson said the mix of companies in Sheboygan County make co-op education an ideal approach.
"We probably have more world-class companies per capita than you'll find anywhere," Jacobson said. "Lakeland students will get an opportunity to learn while working in some of the finest companies in the world. It will be great for area companies, because it will provide the perfect venue for companies to get to know our students and build trusting relationships with them. And, if we're fortunate enough, convince these students to stay and become contributing members of our communities.
"It will also provide Lakeland University with a unique and meaningful point of difference as we continue to expand our brand's vision. It will help us attract and educate a different kind of student. One that, by virtue of their choice to come to Lakeland, shows a genuine commitment to becoming a better person. These are the kind of people we need in this world."