KILLINGTON, Vt. — Wrapped in fleece and flannel, the students in a mid-afternoon college writing class look as if they’re about to jump out of their seats and onto a ski lift.
Which is exactly what some of them are planning to do.
These undergraduates are studying resort and hospitality management at the Killington ski resort, where they also live and work. While it does come with a free lift ticket, their business program is fully accredited and degree-granting, taught by professors from nearby Castleton University.
Among other subjects, the students take courses in sociology, psychology, English composition, science and math — all at the kind of business where the principles they learn in the classroom and from textbooks can be put into practice.
“We get to hear the theory and then go right to work and apply it,” said Chris Provencher, 22, who is finishing up his degree. "If I wasn't in college, this is exactly what I'd be doing, so the fact that I can do this and get my degree at the same time is just incredible.”
Another university teaches fermentation at a brewery. Yet another runs classes for its students at Google, where they simultaneously work. Two teach aviation-related subjects at an airport.
These aren’t internships, apprenticeships or co-op programs that require students to take jobs on the way to their degrees. That’s because academic faculty accompany the students to the job site. At a time when American employers — and Americans in general — think colleges aren’t bringing workplace skills to the classroom, some colleges are bringing the classroom to the workplace.
Or, in this case, to the mountain.
The largest ski area in the eastern United States, Killington dominates the landscape outside the windows of the cafeteria in the dorm where Castleton’s students live and eat. Neatly groomed ski and snowboard trails spiderweb through a pine forest under a blue sky dappled with clouds. Inside, ski boots dry beside a wood stove.
Run on a trimester instead of a semester schedule, the hospitality program is designed so that these students can earn a bachelor’s degree within three years, and the university says 90 percent of them do. That compares with fewer than 60 percent nationally who finish college within even six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks graduation rates.
Frank Pauze, the Castleton-Killington coordinator, said the success rate is so high because the 30 students in the program are exposed every day to the work they’re learning in the classroom how to do.
“They’re seeing the application into practice,” Pauze said. "You're on the 'Access Road.' You're totally drenched in everything Killington is doing. You're immersed."
He compares it to medical school, where students learn in labs and classrooms, “then go into the hospital with live patients and live catastrophes and live situations. Same thing here.”
It’s a good way to bridge the gap between what students learn and what employers say they need them to know, said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Jobs for the Future.
Only 11 percent of business leaders in a Gallup poll strongly agreed that college graduates were prepared for work. Two-thirds of Americans in a Pew Research Center survey said students aren’t getting the skills they need for the workplace. And only 41 percent of students said they considered themselves very or extremely prepared for their careers, a McGraw-Hill survey found.
With so much doubt about the connection between college and careers, programs like the one at Killington are “kind of the other end of the spectrum, where it is really a complete integration of that academic and occupational learning that goes beyond just a time-limited internship or a co-op,” Flynn said.
Some academics complain that these kinds of programs tip too far into vocational training, or give students an excuse to be around beer or to ski and snowboard. But Flynn said she sees it as “really an integrated approach between earning a degree and training for an occupation at the same time.”
At Middle Tennessee State University, a new fermentation science major is being taught at a brewery at Hop Springs Beer Park in Murfreesboro, about 35 miles southeast of Nashville, where the university has built fermentation and sensory labs.
Standing next to massive stainless-steel tanks and beer kegs on the brewery floor, Tony Johnston, the program director, explained the idea is “to better prepare our students to walk into industry and be as well-prepared as we can equip them” to be.
Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel's whiskey, is home to a number of prospective employers, including 60 wineries, 30 distilleries, 52 breweries, 10 cheese-making operations and the world’s largest yogurt processing facility.
When they apply for jobs, said Johnston, graduates can say, “‘I know how to do this. I've done it. I’ve actually run these experiments,’ or ‘I’ve run these tests.’”
This model is so new it doesn’t have a name — some in higher education have suggested “college on site” or “workplace learning.”
“I'm going to be teaching you what you’re doing while you do it,” said Johnston in describing the model. “And you’re also going to be able to talk to the brewmaster, who happens to be standing right next to you, who is saying, ‘I want you to do it this way.’ … It’s that hands-on, interactive opportunity that you just can’t get through an internship.”
Howard University computer science students learn from Howard faculty and Google engineers at the Silicon Valley headquarters of Google, where they also work. Harry Keeling, the director, likens the program to learning a foreign language not from a book, but by going to a country where it’s spoken. First called Howard West, and since renamed Tech Exchange, it has expanded to include students from other historically black universities and colleges.
Highline and South Seattle colleges run Airport University at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, offering credit-bearing and certificate courses in areas such as customer service.
And Emerson College faculty supervise students who write, manage, sell and market a film magazine the university took over, The Independent.
On-the-job training is not the only advantage of this kind of an arrangement. Castleton students, for instance, earn an average of $6,500 apiece, per year, Pauze said, for working at Killington's rental shops, in ticket sales, on the ski patrol, as groomers and in the hotels and retail stores. Their earnings amount to just more than half of in-state tuition.
“Their loan debt is going to be less. They also have three or four or five major work experiences with a well-known resort. Not bad on your resume,” Pauze said.
Teaching on site keeps faculty connected with what’s happening in the fields they teach, too, Flynn said.
“It would be great if more four-year universities looked at those models because of that direct connection between academics and the labor market,” she said.
But the greatest benefit is in learning while doing, said Karen Elzey, associate executive director of Workcred, which advocates for elevating the quality of the nation’s workforce.
“The ability to learn and then practice and then come back and learn more —that seems like a combination that has a lot of potential for students as they demonstrate and prove to employers what graduates are able to do,” Elzey said.
Thirty graduates of the Castleton program work at Killington; others run restaurants and retail stores all over the country, or have detoured into real estate or human resources.
One who stayed is Amy Laramie, now the resort’s director of communications, events and special projects.
What she learned from the experience, Laramie said, is “you can’t teach how to handle a guest who’s frustrated with you in a textbook. You really learn firsthand how to handle it — frustrated guests, or how to fix a problem. So that's really what this program gives you.”
At a time when seven in 10 employers report a talent shortage, some companies say it's never been so hard to find qualified workers.
"Colleges really need to look and reinvent themselves," said Mike Solimano, president and general manager at Killington Resort and Pico Mountain.
Over the past year, four colleges in southwestern Vermont have either closed or merged.
Sitting in the lobby of Killington’s Grand Resort Hotel, Solimano said small schools need to be more entrepreneurial.
"Just like any other business. How are you competing in the market?" he said.
And Solimano said he thinks a program like the one at Castleton can help set a school apart.
Jon Marcus is the higher education editor for The Hechinger Report.