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College students who participated in online internships during the COVID-19 pandemic did not get as much out of the experience as peers who participated in in-person internships, a new study found.
Academics at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, which is housed within the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research, published the findings of their research into online internships yesterday.
The study, which included survey data from nearly 10,000 students at 11 colleges and universities, found just 22 percent of respondents participated in an internship in the past year. Of these internships, half were in person and the remainder online. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research program, known as RAPID.
When the pandemic hit the U.S. in spring 2020, interest in online internships grew, said Matthew T. Hora, co-author of the report and director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at UW Madison. Many people naturally assumed that most in-person positions would be shifted online, he said, but that does not appear to have been the case.
Researchers came away with several key findings:
- Internship participation during the COVID-19 pandemic was low, with 22.1 percent of students taking an internship. Of these, roughly 50 percent took online positions, and 50 percent in person.
- Online internship networking programs are pivotal to connecting students and employers, but there were many more students registering for these platforms than open positions, with demand far outstripping supply.
- Students who participated in online internships tended to have high grade point averages and come from upper-income families, suggesting that online interns represent a narrow slice of the student population.
- A higher percentage of online internships were unpaid versus in-person internships -- 42 percent unpaid online versus 34.9 percent unpaid in person.
- Online interns report lower satisfaction with their experience than in-person interns. Online interns also reported lower scores for both academic and developmental value, as well as networking opportunities.
- Online internships need to be designed with greater attention to task design, supervision and communication.
- Employers and postsecondary institutions will require training to improve how online internships are designed and implemented.
A Need to Work With Employers
Internships can vary widely by their organization, their objectives and their usefulness to students and employers. Many of the challenges with online internships highlighted in the report are consistent with the challenges experienced by employees who switched to remote work during the pandemic. They include navigating new communication channels.
“Without in-person opportunities, it’s extremely difficult for students to establish strong connections within a work environment, namely through networking or casual water-cooler talk,” said Kevin Davis, the founder and executive director of First Workings, a nonprofit organization that connects high school students in New York City with paid summer internships.
Losing out on in-person networking opportunities is particularly detrimental for students coming from first-generation or low-income households “who may not have social capital in the student’s aspiring career or industry,” Davis said.
When the pandemic hit, First Workings made the difficult decision to shift from in-person internships to one-on-one virtual mentorships instead.
“Our main priority was providing opportunities for students to build social capital, while mitigating the disengagement seen in a virtual environment,” Davis said.
The mentorship program included frequent meetings between students and First Meetings staff, mental health check-ins and a stipend to help mitigate the lack of in-person work opportunities available, he said.
“Creating an environment that encourages mentorship is a vital step to ensure your online internship is a successful one,” Davis said. “If an internship does not include set mentorship programs, students should reach out to professionals at the company and ask for advice on how to find an appropriate mentor.”
In addition to employers thinking about how to build connections between supervisors and students, Hora, the report's co-author, recommends that colleges start engaging more with companies to discuss how to design meaningful learning experiences. Problem-based learning, where students are given a real-world problem to solve, works particularly well for internships and benefits both the employer and the intern, Hora said.
The study highlights an employer called TreeHouse Foods that offers an online internship program that Hora and his colleagues feel is particularly well designed. Unlike some other employers, TreeHouse Foods treats its online internships as an important recruitment pipeline -- not something they are doing as a service or to find cheap labor, according to Hora.
Before the pandemic, the number of online internships was growing, Hora said. He expects online internships to continue to grow as companies gain experience operating remotely. That said, there are some professions that are unlikely to transition to fully online internships.
“I don’t think we’ll see many welding internships move online, for example -- or at least I hope we don’t,” Hora said. There are some experiences that will remain important to have in person, particularly for hands-on and STEM-based professions.
Over the past five years, online recruitment platform Handshake has also seen the number of remote internships available to college students increase, said Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at the company. She said that employers appear to now be engaging in a more deliberate “remote-first internship strategy.”
“Between 2019 and 2020, the number of remote learning internship postings on Handshake increased almost 500 percent,” Cruzvergara said. “Looking into the future, it is clear that COVID-19 has made a lasting impact on the way employers and students conduct internships, prompting employers to build the infrastructure and systems to support remote arrangements.”
Employers are realizing that online internships and online recruiting more broadly can help them expand their candidate pool and diversify their teams, said Cruzvergara. Employers can now “truly include those qualified and not just those who have the means to travel and live somewhere different for three months,” she said.
Though Hora acknowledges that online internships could help to plug equity and opportunity gaps for students from lower-income backgrounds or who are unable to travel, he says there is little evidence so far that online internships are particularly beneficial to students, nor that they are leveling the playing field.
Students who completed online internships in the past year tended to be from wealthier families and have higher grade point averages than their peers. They also tended not to be first-generation students or students who are studying STEM subjects. Hora and his colleagues plan to look further at these demographics and examine more data on online internships as part of the upcoming National Survey of College Internships, which is due to launch in October.
“While remote work and online internships will remain a reality for many professions and sectors, it is clear that colleges and universities need to work with employers to ensure they are as effective learning experiences as an in-person position,” Hora said in a statement accompanying the release of the study.
“Until then,” Hora continued, “the online internship should be viewed with caution as a form of experiential learning -- one with great potential to reach thousands of students unable to take an in-person position, but something that is clearly a work in progress.”