March 04, 2024

State System Universities Launch Initiative with Major Employers to Expand Work-based Learning

Contact: Kevin Hensil,

Strada Education Foundation grant is supporting the pilot

Innovative strategy emphasizes integrating real-work experiences into classroom learning

Initiative furthers PASSHE’s commitment to workforce development and preparing graduates for in-demand jobs 

Harrisburg, PA – Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the PASSHE Foundation are launching a pilot initiative with major employers to significantly increase work-based learning that provides real-world experiences for PASSHE university students. Work-based learning, including paid internships and apprenticeships, enhances a student’s higher education and launches graduates into better jobs with higher incomes, which positively impacts their long-term earnings and economic mobility. 

Highmark Health is the initial partner employer and PASSHE invites other statewide and regional employers to join the initiative. Strada Education Foundation awarded a $750,000 grant to support the pilot project.

“At Strada, our mission is to strengthen connections between education after high school and opportunity, with a focus on helping people who face the greatest challenges. PASSHE has delivered on its commitments to advancing social mobility, and we are pleased to partner with the State System through this investment,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of Strada Education Foundation. “Our research demonstrates the impact of work-based learning on student outcomes. We are delighted to support the State System in expanding students’ participation in these opportunities.”

The pilot includes five State System universities from different regions of Pennsylvania: Cheyney (southeast), Commonwealth (north central), East Stroudsburg (northeast), Slippery Rock (west), and Shippensburg (central). PASSHE intends to expand the initiative to all 10 State System universities after the pilot is complete.

“The State System is incredibly excited to partner with Highmark Health and the Strada Education Foundation on this innovative initiative,” said PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein. “With 14 legacy campuses throughout the state, PASSHE is uniquely positioned to partner with employers in Pennsylvania. Together, we can connect classroom learning with real-work experiences and strategically build a better process for connecting students and employers. Ultimately, that will help launch more students into great careers and provide the workforce talent that employers need.”

The three-year pilot will reach more than 1,000 students, beginning in Fall 2024. 

“Highmark Health is proud to partner with PASSHE to support this initiative to combine classroom learning with work-based experiences for State System university students,” said Dan Onorato, executive vice president, chief corporate affairs officer, Highmark Health. “Our team members are transforming healthcare, and this collaboration will help us share that valuable experience with PASSHE students and meet skilled and motivated people who after graduation might join our world-class workforce.” 

Strong university and employer partnerships 

PASSHE will build the technological and academic infrastructure required to integrate work-based learning into students’ classroom and campus experiences. Additionally, strategic partnerships and collaborations between universities and employers will create expanded and sustainable work-based learning opportunities for PASSHE students. The ultimate goals are two-fold: to enhance students’ college experience and to deliver the workforce talent Pennsylvania’s employers, including commonwealth agencies, need to thrive and grow.

“Strong partnership between universities and employers can provide students with tremendous experience that helps them learn and prepare for great careers in Pennsylvania,” said Shelley Scherer, president and CEO of the PASSHE Foundation. “We are thrilled to start this project with Highmark Health and are excited to build a network of state-wide employers to partner with PASSHE. Together, our students can learn valuable on-the-job skills and expand the college-to-career pipeline with the workforce talent our employers need to thrive and grow.”

Universities will emphasize to students the importance of work-based learning as part of their higher education; expand opportunities for students to have those experiences, especially paid internships; and streamline the process for students. For example, the initiative will embed real-work experiences into the academic curriculum to broaden access and configure a shared online platform (Handshake) to help students identify opportunities that align with their career interests. Universities will also expand the regional network of participating employers and integrate work-based learning into on-campus work study – an additional benefit for students who are using the paid jobs to help fund their education.

Employers will explore how to streamline their recruitment and engagement of paid interns, partner with universities to create internships throughout the year, accommodate students’ class schedules, develop additional job-relevant instruction for interns and, when possible, link paid internships to potential jobs after graduation.

Benefits of work-based learning 

Work-based learning, which can include internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing and more, allows students to connect their classroom education with technical and workplace skills and to develop professional connections and networks as part of their overall education. University students with high-quality, work-based learning, especially paid internships, have more confidence in their skills, are more likely to get higher-paying jobs after graduation, and are more satisfied with their education and career choices, according to findings by the Strada Education Foundation.

However, low-income, first-generation, Black and Latino students, and women are less likely to have paid internships, which can reduce their employability and income after graduation. To address the access gap, the pilot has a goal of 60% of students in the initiatives being low-income, first-generation or underrepresented minorities, which closely mirrors their representation among all PASSHE students.

PASSHE prepares students for in-demand jobs

Pennsylvania has worker shortages and a critical education and training gap: 60% of jobs in the commonwealth require some higher education after high school, but only 53% of workers have the needed degree or credential, according to the Lumina Foundation.

As the state-owned university system, PASSHE is committed to closing the gap and serving the learners and employers of Pennsylvania. PASSHE continues to redesign itself to meet the changing needs of today’s learners and to prepare more students for the jobs employers need to fill.

The State System’s strategic redesign is delivering results. Today, 82% of recent PASSHE graduates working in Pennsylvania majored in high-priority programs, including business, education, healthcare, social services and STEM fields. Those jobs are important to Pennsylvania’s future and are part of the foundation for local workforces and the statewide economy.  

The State System is also developing Pennsylvania’s first credential registry. The user-friendly online tool will help students and workers more easily chart their educational path. The registry will allow people to learn which credentials exist, where to get them and in what order, and which skills employers want for in-demand jobs. The registry also will explain which credentials are “stackable," or sequenced, possibly leading to a bachelor's degree and beyond.

Last year, PASSHE and Google jointly began offering industry-recognized Google Career Certificates to students and alumni to help them secure good-paying jobs. The public-private partnership enables students to earn a Google Career Certificate and college credit in some undergraduate programs. Many PASSHE universities will offer the credentials to the public, through non-credit courses.

The State System is also keeping costs low so students can afford their education. PASSHE has kept tuition at the same rate for six consecutive years thanks to increased state investment and robust cost efficiency at each university. Students also received 30% more financial aid this year funded by their university.