Research on Work-Based Learning - Studying Coursetaking & Post-Degree Earnings Among Completers


Rachel Yang Zhou’s research study, “Understanding Experiential Learning Through Work-Based College Coursetaking: Evidence From Transcript Data Using a Text Mining Technique” (February 2023, CCRC Working Paper No. 131) offers insights about the importance of work-based learning.

The study used administrative data from a large and diverse public college system. The data included demographic information and academic term-level records for college enrollees that are linked to quarterly earnings records from accompanying state’s department of labor. The study examined college transcript records and identified work-based courses under five broad categories:

  • Internship, externship, apprenticeship, or clerkship courses
  • Practicum, placement, professional practice, or professional experience courses (including clinical practicum and student teaching courses)
  • Fieldwork, field experience, or field practice courses
  • Co-operative (co-op) courses
  • Service learning courses.

Because of the challenges in identifying work-based courses in transcript data (e.g., course titles were the only identifier for courses in the data but contained abbreviations and misspellings that were not consistent across years or colleges), Zhou used a "text mining algorithm" based on edit distance. Edit distance quantifies the similarity between two words by counting the minimum number of operations required to transform one word into the other. As example, the edit distance between “internship” and “intnshp” was three because it takes deletions of three characters to transform from “internship” to “intnshp.” Using the algorithm, Zhou calculated the edit distance of every word in course titles and recorded the minimum distance for each title. Starting from the lowest minimum distance, she reviewed corresponding words and flagged those that were variations of key terms until the words became irrelevant.

Zhou’s included in the analysis sample cohorts of first-time college students entering the system’s two-year and four-year institutions in the years 2004-05 to 2013-14. The data tracked enrollment, course taking, and degree outcomes of each enrollee in the sample for six years after college entry. The study also examined patterns of work-based course taking in college based on descriptive analyses.


  • Approximately 15% of enrollees and 30% of graduates took a work-based course in the six years after college entry.
  • Students typically earned credits from work-based courses, and typically took the courses in later years of their programs.
  • Work-based course taking varied largely across fields of study as well as colleges.
  • While there was no significant racial disparity, female students, students who were younger at enrollment, and U.S.-born students were more likely to take the courses than their counterparts.
  • There was a positive association between work-based course taking in college and the probability of being employed after degree completion among both two-year and four-year degree completers, a positive association with post-degree earnings among four-year completers, and a negative association with post-degree earnings among two-year completers.


Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University



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