What’s ahead for internship programs after a year of disruption?

When the pandemic hit last year, many college students saw their internship plans shift dramatically, as employers reconfigured their programs for a virtual environment or, in some cases, canceled them entirely. Now, higher ed stakeholders are considering what’s ahead—and urging employers to focus on equity as they decide how to proceed.

Higher Ed Dive reports that more than one in three college students surveyed in April 2020 said their internship or post-graduate job had been canceled. At that time, the 16- to 19-year-old demographic had the largest unemployment growth of any age group, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The disappearance of paid internships was a particular concern; students often rely on that income to help offset the cost of college.

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

Beyond finances, internships can be a crucial step in students’ college-to-career journey, helping them to clarify their professional interests and gain hands-on learning opportunities. They also provide valuable networking opportunities, which can be especially important for students from groups underrepresented in higher education, The Hechinger Report notes.

Related: Summer internship cancellations could have lasting effects >

Removing barriers to paid opportunities

Higher Ed Dive reports that while many employers’ internships plans remain “somewhat in flux,” industry groups expect there will be around the same number of internship positions available in 2021 as there were in 2020.

As employers solidify their plans, advocates are urging them to do so with an eye toward equity. According to Pay Our Interns—an advocacy group that seeks to ensure that “a person’s socioeconomic status [is not] a barrier to getting real-world work experience”—some racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in unpaid internships.

To broaden access to high-quality internship opportunities, experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education say that employers must identify and remove financial, sociocultural, and institutional hurdles. In a report on the topic, they highlight the steep climb students with limited professional networks face in seeking internships and the dilemma lower-income students in rural areas encounter when they must move to another city to access internship opportunities but receive no wages to offset the cost.

Paid internships can play an important role in diversifying the workforce “and if done equitably, can stop the reproduction of economic and racial disparities,” Carlos Mark Vera, executive director and co-founder of Pay Our Interns, told Higher Ed Dive.

Targeted internships maximizing benefits for all parties

An opinion piece in The Hechinger Report recently highlighted one creative approach to offering paid internships at a time of financial strain for some organizations. Recognizing that students were scrambling for internship opportunities just as community organizations were struggling to meet demand for social services, New York City-based Pace University launched a targeted internship program to benefit both.

Pace—whose student body includes many first-generation and low-income students—matched students with internships at nonprofit organizations that were central to supporting the local community during the pandemic. Philanthropic support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) ensured that interns received stipends for their work, without draining financial resources from the already-strained nonprofits.

In summer 2020, 65 Pace students participated in these “New York Resilience Internships,” and program organizers plan to expand the program going forward. Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University, and Stelios Vassilakis, chief programs and strategic initiatives officer at SNF, say the targeted internship model is “a solution that can be replicated by colleges and universities across the country, anywhere nonprofits need workers and community-focused donors can support their efforts.”

Increasing Georgetown students’ access to professional development
Read about the Idol Family Fellowship, a summer program at Georgetown University that provides first-generation and low-income undergraduates with financial and programmatic support as they participate in summer internships.

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