Students participate in a MiddCORE session.
Kathryn Benson, a senior neuroscience major at Middlebury College in Vermont, has always been interested in design, but she never thought that she could combine it with her passion for neuroscience in a future career.
That is, until she participated in MiddCORE, a “bridge program” in which she gained leadership and entrepreneurial skills that she didn’t learn in her typical classes at school.
“MiddCORE in my mind is somewhat like a microcosm of the liberal arts; students from every major come together to solve real strategic problems using the tools and the perspectives and the critical thinking skills that they learned in their traditional liberal arts education,” said Jessica Holmes in a recently aired interview on the Internet talk-radio network VoiceAmerica.
Holmes is an associate professor of economics at Middlebury College and director of MiddCORE, which is one type of bridge program available to undergraduate students who are looking to expand their skill sets.
The term “bridge program” is often used to refer to crash courses in business or corporate skills that can give liberal arts majors a boost before entering the working world. However, the nature of these programs has become increasingly diverse, so that programs like MiddCORE, which are not exclusively geared toward helping students gain business skills, can also be considered bridge programs because they provide skills not typically learned within the liberal arts curriculum.
Bridge programs can be similar to university courses that students take and complete within a few weeks or months, or they can be more interactive experiences that combine team-building exercises, workshops, case studies and presentations to engage participants in different ways than a university class would. While many bridge programs are affiliated with universities, others such as the Fullbridge Program are independently run by outside companies.
Despite their differences, many of these programs are centered on the common themes of confidence building, leadership and entrepreneurship.
For example, MiddCORE, founded at Middlebury in 2008, is built on the four guiding principles of creativity, opportunity, risk and entrepreneurship (which collectively stand for “CORE”). The program began as a course offered during the spring semester at Middlebury, and aims to prepare students to be leaders and entrepreneurs by teaching skills in crisis management, collaboration, persuasive communication and more.
Like other similar bridge programs, MiddCORE operates on the idea that students, no matter what field they studied or are currently studying in their undergraduate career, can benefit from acquiring a certain set of skills before entering the working world.
What students gain
The Accelerator program at the Vanderbilt Summer Business Institute is one example of a bridge program that focuses on business education, drawing students from a variety of different majors. Some are interested in rounding out their liberal arts education with business skills and others are looking to narrow their focus within business to a specific area such as marketing, finance or consulting.
Because Vanderbilt University has no business major, Accelerator began nine years ago as a trial program that would provide students who were interested in business with a way to learn those skills. Today, the program combines real project experience, professional development (including resume building and one-on-one career counseling) and an “internship day” where students can interview for internship positions. Last year there was a 100% placement rate, with students securing internships in a variety of industries such a health care, banking and marketing.
Greg Harvey, program director of Accelerator, said the projects that students work on for real companies are a distinguishing factor of the experience overall.
“Students basically have five or six mini internships through the experience,” said Harvey.
Nicole Faherty, program director for the Tuck Business Bridge Program, distinguished the Tuck program from Accelerator, saying that their program does not focus primarily on applied exercises, but rather combines this with more traditional, classroom-style instruction.
“Tuck definitely provides an introduction to business, but it also provides a very rich education in business as well, so people come into it as non-business majors with very limited experience and come out as very strong candidates in different business careers,” Faherty said.
Programs like the Tuck Business Bridge Program also go beyond providing just the skills and, in some cases, also open the door to job opportunities.
What it costs
Bridge programs and other supplemental education programs come with a price tag, which, in some cases, can prove to be a significant barrier for students.
Tuition for one MiddCORE summer program, for example, is $9,500.
“It does seem as though the cost is a bit of an obstacle but we try to find ways to work around that and lower the barrier. We do have a scholarship fund and award scholarships based on merit and need. … So far we’ve been able to accommodate most of the applicants who needed financial aid,” said MiddCORE Recruiter and Outreach Assistant Astrid Schanz-Garbassi.
Harvey from the Vanderbilt Accelerator program noted the availability of $1,000-$3,500 partial scholarships, payment plans and student loans as several options to help students and parents pay for the program. He also said that he has seen more parents using their 529 plans to pay for the program.
Other programs, such as the Fullbridge Program, present the cost as a good alternative to a far pricier MBA.
Fullbridge, described in publicity materials as “an intensive, 20-day professional boot camp,” seeks to build business and professional skills in participants. The program touts the value, affordability and accessibility of its “XBA” curriculum, which, at a price tag between $5,000 and $7,500, presents a more focused and less expensive means of career preparation than the traditional two-year MBA model.
The future of liberal arts?
The increasing popularity of bridge programs and other supplemental educational programs is fueling debate about the value of the liberal arts curriculum for the 21st-century student. While some are skeptical about how well a liberal arts curriculum prepares students for the professional world, many students and program directors from bridge programs believe that it provides a valuable foundation for career preparation.
The leadership of the Entrepreneurship@Williams Program at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., is another example of a university-affiliated bridge program. Although John Noble, director of the Williams College Career Center, says that Entrepreneurship@Williams does not focus exclusively on business skills, he notes that the program still offers students a hands-on learning experience in entrepreneurship to supplement their liberal arts education.
“There’s no real move at Williams to create a business bridge program or to create an accounting major or something like that,” said Noble. “There’s a strong belief, and I hold that belief, too, that liberal arts can be seen as a very good preparation for any kind of career.”
Programming for Entrepreneurship@Williams includes January-term courses at Williams College such as “Social Entrepreneurship: Innovating in the Social Sector” as well as a business-plan competition that students can enter to test their ideas and receive feedback.
Students like Tori Wycoff, a 2011 graduate of Vanderbilt University who participated in the Accelerator program between her junior and senior year, agree with Noble’s notion about the value of liberal arts.
“Right now, being a few years out, I don’t feel any pressure for a professional degree just yet. With my liberal arts education and the Accelerator program, I think I was definitely prepared for a career in business,” said Wycoff. “I definitely think that a more well-rounded education is better in the long run.”
Others disagree about the changing role and value of a liberal arts education in the 21st-century job market.
Eric Glustrom is the founder and president of Watson University, a semester-long experience for university students which includes training inspired by the Transformative Action Institute. Watson’s Master Courses range from “The ABC’s of the Startup” to “Leveraging global markets and local cultures to end poverty,” and students develop, pilot and scale real ventures or projects aimed at solving significant global challenges.
The Watson University program is launching in the fall with its first class of 20 scholars.
“I went to Amherst (College), which is very much a liberal arts school, and I think it is very clear that students aren’t fully satisfied with the liberal arts model because it doesn’t offer enough integration with the real world. … It’s an isolated four-year experience on a single campus,” said Glustrom. “I think there is also dissatisfaction because students aren’t fully satisfied with a vocational or pre-professional type school on the other end of the spectrum, so where do we find that magical middle ground?”
Glustrom pointed to time wasted figuring out what students want to do after college and large amounts of debt as two reasons why students may be unsatisfied with the liberal arts model.
“This (liberal arts) system is not sustainable and needs to change,” said Glustrom. “The reason why there is so much interest in the Watson program and other bridge programs is that we’re no longer accepting that that is good enough.”
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