In recent years, institutions of higher education have had to rethink the model of service they provide. The fallout of this challenge can be seen in multiple ways. For example, law schools nationwide are struggling to place graduates, who are beset by massive debt brought on by the cost of their legal studies. These schools have begun to retool their education models. As a result, several law schools have begun to explore alternative educational options such as reducing the time to earn a J.D. from three years to only two; allowing students to earn up to a semester’s credit toward graduation by working in practical legal outlets; or, by establishing firms at the law school to ensure employment and hands-on legal experience, while helping the less fortunate members of their local communities.
Traditional colleges and universities, facing challenges from for-profit institutions, massive open online courses and the decline of public support for their students, have also been forced to make adjustments to their model. Recent changes include streamlining their course offerings, diversifying in a variety of ways such as offering their own online or hybrid courses, or meeting the challenges of the workplace in creative ways.
One of the major criticisms of the liberal arts curriculum is that it is too theoretical, and lacks the accumulation of practical, “marketable” skills. While this popular conception has its flaws, this does not mean that liberal arts institutions should not try to improve and adapt the educational offerings to their students. Quite the contrary, responsible education is responsive education.
With this in mind, Westminster College, in Fulton, Mo., recently created its Capital Internship Program. The program is designed to allow select students to spend a semester in Jefferson City to build a practical skill set from the theoretical mindset. Open to high-performing students from all majors, the program is built to allow students to use their majors, whether from obviously related fields such as political science, to more abstract connections from philosophy, ethics, biology and security studies.
The Capital Internship Program of Westminster College begins by giving the interns a short, intensive introduction to Missouri politics. This is followed by a rich internship experience at an internship site uniquely selected to bolster the individual learning experience and goals of the student. For example, this semester Westminster placed an education major with a legislator who is a former teacher and who remains interested in the state’s education policies. Similarly, we placed a student who has aspirations of studying biomedical ethics with a senator from the Veterans’ Affairs and Health committee. In short, these students are taking their classroom knowledge to the hearing rooms, and serving their state at the same time. This also provides the students with hands-on political and communication experiences, as well as networking possibilities that few have. According to Missouri Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, "an internship is a great opportunity for students to have a personal experience with the political process and government. College is the best time for students to explore future career options, and internships are the best way to do that.”
Perhaps the most important portion of the internship experience is provided by Westminster alumnus and former Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons from Kirkwood. Mr. Gibbons leads a for-credit seminar that focuses on bridging theory and practice, and allows the student interns to meet a variety of governmental officials they would not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet to discuss Missouri politics.
What are the lessons to be learned here? First, this article is not about Westminster College, as such. It is about innovation. Westminster took the opportunity to establish this program because of institutional advantages we have, including proximity to the state capital. We encourage fellow institutions to find their niches.
It is imperative that high school students and their parents explore all of the higher education options available to them. It is absolutely true, for example, that online course options are cheaper than attending a traditional “bricks and mortar” four-year college. But it is unlikely that options such as the above exist for users of online courses. What is important is finding the right option for parents and their child. Students must find the educational option with the best long-term outlook for their particular interest and niche.
Tobias T. Gibson is associate professor of political science and security studies at Westminster College, in Fulton, Mo. He also is the chair of the Capital Internship Program of Westminster College.