Revolutionizing higher education: Work-based learning (work-integrated learning) for underserved populations

October 27, 2023
6 min
Your asset will automatically download.
Didn’t get it?
Download Now

In the game of life, choices matter. For young adults, especially those from underserved communities, one of the most pivotal decisions is whether to pursue a college degree or dive directly into the workforce. 

Even though 83% of these young minds feel the societal pull to pursue a college path, nearly half question its real-world relevance—asking if that coveted degree truly gives them a sense of direction in their careers and sets them up for financial success in their future. 

Many of these students only get one shot at their education, and this path is often filled with challenges. Here's where higher education institutions can really make a difference.

If we can provide learners with equitable access to enriching experiences through work-based learning (WBL), we offer them more than just an education; we can bestow them with clarity, confidence, and a renewed sense of purpose.

In this article, we'll explore the transformative power of WBL,  an approach that promises more than just traditional internships, and how it helps ensure that these learners are not navigating these challenges in isolation.

Key takeaways

  • WBL offers real-world experience, ensuring every student, irrespective of their background, gains the vital skills and insights necessary for career success.
  • This approach addresses traditional barriers like underemployment, lack of resources, and financial constraints, creating an inclusive learning environment that prioritizes students' holistic development.
  • Committed to creating equitable learning environments, Riipen emerges as the premier platform to systemically address challenges faced by underserved students.

Work-integrated learning: More than just internships

With job markets continually shifting and technology threatening certain positions, a majority of today's learners (58%) feel that a skills-based education makes sense in today's world.  

And that's exactly what WBL can provide. Unlike traditional internships, which can be limited in scope and accessibility, WBL offers an immersive, hands-on experience designed to align students with real-world career paths.

What really sets it apart from internships is its equitable nature. Traditionally, internships tend to favor students from certain backgrounds, connections, or schools. But what happens if you lack the established networks or family ties in coveted industries that others inherit?

You end up missing out on opportunities. In fact, a staggering 70.9% of students revealed they never had access to internships for one reason or another. WBL addresses this gap head-on. 

It doesn't just level the playing field; it rebuilds it to be more inclusive, ensuring each student, no matter their background, gains the skills and insights they truly deserve.

Today's forward-thinking educational institutions recognize this shift. The strategies they employ demonstrate a commitment not just to diversity, but also to ensure every student gets an equitable chance at real-world success.

Challenges faced by underserved learners in higher education

Underserved learners frequently confront systemic barriers, many of which are invisible to their peers. These challenges include:


Underserved learners often take the first job they find due to a lack of career clarity and professional network. If an individual starts their career underemployed, they're likely to remain in such a state for two-thirds or even more of their professional journey. This scenario traps them in a vicious cycle, limiting their earning potential and inhibiting personal and professional growth.

Lack of specialized resources

Not all students walk the academic path with an arsenal of resources at their disposal. While some students benefit from extensive networks and mentors, those from underserved backgrounds often navigate the academic realm with minimal guidance. This lack of resources can hinder their progress and obscure their future prospects.

Financial barriers

For many students, the cost of higher education goes far beyond tuition. Living expenses, textbooks, technology, and transportation, among others, can pile up. 

While scholarships or financial aid might cover some of these fees, the broader costs associated with obtaining a degree can sometimes force these students to make sacrifices.

Cultural and societal hurdles

Beyond the tangible challenges, underserved students may experience feelings of isolation, especially if they're in the minority or come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Societal stigmas about seeking assistance and the clash between academic and familial values can further complicate their educational experience.

Work visa struggles for international students

International students often encounter formidable challenges in engaging in work-based learning projects due to stringent work visa regulations. 

Most of the time the limitations and specific requirements imposed by these visas don’t allow for international students to complete these activities, putting them at a disadvantage in both their learning journey and future career endeavors.

How work-based learning can empower underserved learners

Underserved learners, more than anyone, need an edge—a secret weapon that helps them transcend these barriers and get the most out of their academic journey. This is where WBL truly shines. Let's take a closer look at how it helps these students.

Increasing student retention

Engaging students is not just about transferring knowledge but creating an environment where they feel valued, understood, and driven to see their education to the finish line. 

Through WBL, students see the value of their studies in tangible, real-world scenarios. It does more than just impart knowledge—it weaves a safety net, ensuring that learners don't drift away. 

By providing a context for how their education ties into real-world careers, students are not just going through the motions with their education but actively visualizing their future. The result? A higher likelihood that they'll stick with their chosen major and complete their programs.

Equipping students with essential skills

Rising above challenges often requires more than just grit; it demands tools, skills, and a roadmap. WBL acts as that mentor, enlightening them about potential career paths while equipping them with the necessary skills to navigate the professional world. 

By gaining first-hand insights into industries and job roles, students are empowered to break the shackles of socioeconomic challenges and make informed decisions about their future. 

Guiding toward career clarity

When choosing a career path, the stakes are often higher for underserved learners because they typically can't afford to try different career paths. For many, they get one shot. 

WBL provides students with the clarity they desperately seek. By immersing them in real-world scenarios, they get a clear picture of potential career paths, understanding what they like and where they can excel. 

This renewed sense of purpose ensures that they make decisions about their future from a place of knowledge rather than uncertainty.

Navigating underemployment

Starting a career on the wrong foot can set a precedent that lasts a lifetime. Without the proper guidance and experience, underserved populations often find themselves caught in the snare of underemployment—a position that might not align with their qualifications, aspirations, or potential. 

The danger here is not just about starting salaries but about setting a trajectory that's hard to break free from. WBL bridges this gap. 

By offering learners the much-needed experience and exposure to industry networks, they are better poised to secure positions that match their qualifications and aspirations. This approach ensures they're not just finding employment but are embarking on meaningful, rewarding careers.

Bridging the equity gap: How to implement work-based learning

Higher education institutions stand at a pivotal juncture, with the capacity to redefine the academic journey for underserved learners. They have the power to equip students, especially those from underserved communities, with relevant experiences that prepare them for real-world challenges through WBL programs

One of the best ways to accomplish this is by utilizing powerful platforms like Riipen. Aligned with the mission to create equitable learning environments, Riipen underscores the need to address both unemployment and underemployment systematically, ensuring that every student, irrespective of their background, has access to invaluable hands-on experiences.

By seamlessly integrating authentic, real-world projects into academic curricula, educators can accentuate the practical value of education, enhancing student engagement. 

Institutions implementing WBL are acknowledging the challenges and actively working towards creating an inclusive, equitable educational landscape.

Become the champion for an equitable future with Riipen

We've highlighted the undeniable importance of WBL and its potential to infuse learners with clarity, confidence, and purpose. The pivot towards an inclusive educational framework, where every student is seen, heard, and empowered, is no longer an ideal; it's an imperative.

Riipen is dedicated to bridging the chasm between real-world experience and academic pursuits. Their mission echoes the challenges many educators face daily, arming them with tools to transform learning landscapes and ending the cycles of unemployment and underemployment.

Riipen isn't just a platform; it's a promise of an equitable future. Through its advanced features, it equips educators to elevate learning, fostering environments where students can directly correlate their studies with tangible career paths.

Become part of this transformative journey and explore what Riipen has to offer.

Jump ahead:

Enter your email address to subscribe to The Riipen Report.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Some Form Elements
hs-form is main form class.
form-columns-1 is class of wrapper with 1 column for inputs.
form-columns-2 is class of wrapper with 2 columns for inputs.
input and label
Field Description / Help text
This is help text for the field
Field error message
hs-error-msgs inputs-list
  • Error message label
hs-error-msgs inputs-list is an HTML list element.
hs-error-msg is a text span inside HTML List Item element.
Text area Input
hs-input hs-fieldtype-textarea
hs-fieldtype-textarea is added as combo class.
Note: HubSpot uses basic HTML checkboxes, Webflow checkboxes works differently than the default HTML checkboxes, hence in order to style HubSpot checkboxes you need custom CSS.
you can use Webflow checkbox to style and then copy CSS from it.
Radio Buttons
Success message
Submit button
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.