Bringing internships within reach for a broader array of students

Hoping to increase students’ access to internship experiences, colleges are using grants and philanthropic gifts to help offset housing and transportation costs and lost wages for students who otherwise could not pursue unpaid positions.

While some internships come with compensation, many potentially valuable experiences do not. Unpaid internships, especially those requiring relocation, have historically excluded students who can not afford to work for free. Employers have been effectively “imposing a gatekeeping mechanism on entering into these experiences,” Matthew Hora, co-director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, tells Inside Higher Ed.

Prioritizing paid internships

Recognizing the access and equity implications, some college career centers are pushing back against unpaid arrangements. Community colleges, which serve large populations of lower-income students, have been especially vocal. Top research universities are joining the chorus, Hora says, adding that he has “been seeing a lot of interest outside of career center offices and internship coordinators to make sure that most internships, if not all of them, are paid.”

Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reinforces the benefits of that approach. According to a 2021 study from the organization, students who had paid internships received an average of 1.12 job offers that year, compared with 0.85 offers for unpaid interns and 0.64 job offers for students without any internship experience.

However, many employers remain unattuned to the implications of their unpaid internship programs and reluctant to change, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, tells Inside Higher Ed. Most work-based learning exists “outside the college curriculum,” shaped by employers “who have never participated actively in American education,” he says.

Providing funds to offset lost wages, living costs

Recognizing that many internship opportunities will remain unpaid, colleges also are using grants and philanthropy to ensure financial hurdles don’t prevent lower-income students from pursuing rewarding career experiences.

Related: $5M gift enables more first-generation and low-income Georgetown students to experience summer internships >

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, an initial $30,000 gift from a donor in 2006 to cover several unpaid internships has since grown to an internship program fund that brings in $130,000 annually and is supported by more than a dozen staff members. The fund supports undergraduates pursuing both paid and unpaid internships, awarding students up to $5,000 based on their financial need, underrepresentation in certain industries, and the quality of the learning experience.

Related: $10M gift strengthens Georgetown’s commitment to access and affordability >

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the New College of Florida in 2020 launched an internship program focused on opportunities in the arts and humanities, fields that offer far fewer paid internships than engineering and business. Through the program, interns receive a minimum-wage salary, and internship providers receive a stipend for administrative costs.

Related: Idol Family Fellowship enables students to complete virtual internships during pandemic >

Inside Higher Ed also highlights the University of Baltimore, which is compensating students for internships using funds from the Federal Work-Study program. The university’s Job Location and Development program connects with Work-Study-eligible students to set up off-campus, work-based learning opportunities. With its ties to a robust, established federal program, the model could be a promising way to increase access to internships, notes Carnevale. “We do have Federal Work-Study programs, and we need to expand them,” he says.

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