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Brown University launched a major new initiative Thursday aimed at providing internships, research opportunities, and funding to all freshmen, sophomores, and juniors -- particularly those from low-income backgrounds.

Called BrownConnect, the program began with a pilot phase last year and has already created 154 new internship opportunities, the university said. It has also provided financial support for 254 interns in low-paid or unpaid internships.

“Education has to be more than a series of courses taken over four years,” Christina Paxson, Brown’s president, said. “Outside experience is just as valuable. Internships are how most students find jobs. But if we don’t provide ways to support our students while they’re getting that outside experience, especially those who cannot afford to take unpaid opportunities, they can’t be as successful as we want them to be.”

"This Week": Out-of-Class Engagement

Christina Paxson, Brown’s president, and Gregory M. Weight, executive director of the Washington Internship Institute, will on Friday discuss the push for more internships and other out-of-class experiences on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free weekly news podcast. Sign up here to be notified of new podcasts.

As colleges face more pressure to prove their worth – and for parents that proof often comes in the form of their children finding work after graduation – more institutions are putting resources into initiatives like BrownConnect that seek to provide “real-world” experience to students.

Michael True, a member of the Washington Internship Institute’s board of directors, said colleges are increasingly taking a more active interest in directly helping students participate in internships and other kinds of experiential learning.

“It’s really accelerated in the last five years,” True said. “Colleges helping students find internships is a growing trend. Schools raising money to fund unpaid internships is a growing trend. Use of alumni in this way is a growing trend. All of this is on the upswing because it all makes it that much easier for students to transition to the workplace. Parents today want their students to pursue what interests them but they also want colleges to find a way to make sure that those courses will pay off in the end financially.”

Some colleges have had co-op programs -- in which students alternate between instructions and internships -- for years. But the recent interest by many top colleges and universities goes beyond internships, and includes other efforts to focus on out-of-class experiences. Many colleges want to be sure that students get not just internships, but good internships. A survey being released by Gallup today is the latest to suggest that many internships are less than ideal. The study of college graduates found that only about one in three who graduated in the past four years strongly agreed they had an internship or job that allowed them to apply what they were learning in the classroom.

Engagement Efforts

In 2007, Duke University announced that it was launching a $30 million project that would provide financial support to any undergraduates who wanted to design and carry out service projects around the world. So far more than 2,800 Duke students have participated in the program, which covers both travel and living expenses. "Education finally isn't about doing homework -- it's about actively desiring to use your personal knowledge to accomplish something in the world," Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, said at the time.

Last month, Cornell launched a similarly civic-minded initiative called Engaged Cornell. The $150-million project is expected to develop “hundreds of new community-university partnerships around the world” and provide every Cornell student with an opportunity for what it calls “engaged learning.” This could be an internship or it could be a trip to India to learn about global health. Students are not required to participate, but the university said it is aiming for 100 percent participation by 2025.

“It’s about placing students and what they’re learning in a real-world context,” said Judy Appleton, Cornell’s vice provost and the leader of the initiative. “This generation of students seems to just be more oriented toward that type of learning.”

Providing support for that type of learning has been a priority at Brown, Paxson said, since she became president in 2012. It was a core part of a strategic plan that she introduced in 2013, and she created a committee of alumni and parents to explore how the task could be accomplished. Following the White House’s College Pipeline summit earlier this year, the university also announced that it would provide funding and internships to every Brown student who receives need-based aid. BrownConnect is an extension of those efforts.

A new website that Paxson described as a “one-stop shop” allows students to search for internship and research opportunities across the country, connect with Brown alumni to receive career advice, and explore what kinds of financial support the university offers for low-paid and unpaid internships and research positions. Employers can post internship openings on the website for students to find, and alumni, family members, and other donors can also provide funding through the site. Alumni will be a key part of the initiative, which is so far primarily funded through donations, Paxson said.

“We’ve already found that a lot of alumni would like to be a part of this,” she said. “It’s been mostly donor-driven, and we’ve already been able to make significant expansions in financial support. We’re not sure yet what the total cost will be once this is up and running, but the idea is that the more successful we are at finding paid internships for Brown students, the less money we’ll have to raise for financial support.”

Brown is turning to alumni for the help there, too, encouraging them to be active participants on the site and in hiring Brown students as interns.

Mike Baker, the president of Big Data company DataXu, said that when he graduated from Brown, he went through several short jobs, not knowing what career he wanted to pursue. It was a “costly, friction-filled experience,” he said, and one he hopes BrownConnect can help today’s graduates avoid.

“What the university is trying to do is get more alumni to list internships and convince those who are for-profits to pay those interns,” Baker said. “For alumni like myself, it’s giving us direct access to students who are really bright and who maybe hadn’t thought about interning at a place like a Big Data company. We’re trying before were buying. For students, it’s a way to test out some of their interests and get a more informed view of career choices.”

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