You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Aerial photo of a group of professional people gathered around a table with laptops and phones, some shaking hands.

Laura Love, senior vice president of work-based learning at Strada Education Foundation, says that the majority of students seek an internship but also “need support finding the time, employer connections and financial resources to participate in one.”


Employers value relevant internship experience above most other attributes in two otherwise equally qualified job candidates. Students themselves want work-based learning opportunities. But not all experiences are created equal, and as demand for internships rises, colleges and universities have the dual mandate of expanding access to these opportunities while ensuring their quality.

A new report from Strada Education Foundation, “Building Better Internships: Understanding and Improving the Internship Experience,” offers three strategies for institutions looking to promote meaningful internship experiences, plus six additional guiding principles for work-based learning.

Summing up the report’s major takeaways for colleges and universities, Laura Love, senior vice president of work-based learning at Strada, says that the majority of students seek an internship but also “need support finding the time, employer connections and financial resources to participate in one.” (In a 2022 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 57 percent of respondents gave their colleges a grade of A or B on helping to support their success in internships, with many students indicating they’d like their institutions to do a better job at partnering with local companies to offer internships and at offering financial support for students who can’t afford to work in no-pay models.)

Campus Snapshot: Putting Internships to Work for Students at William & Mary

Philip D. Heavilin II, director of internships & applied learning at William & Mary, which has been recognized repeatedly as a public institution with a strong internship program, says Strada’s report offers important strategies that institutions, employers and researchers can “adopt to enhance the success of our students.” Moreover, he adds, “collaboration and partnership” between these aforementioned groups is critical to helping students bridge the gap from college to career.

Heavilin says that students at William & Mary benefit from multiple entry points to applied learning experiences, as well as institutional support at the highest levels. He highlights some of the ways William & Mary supports students interested in gaining experience through internships:

  • Funding for Unpaid and Underfunded Student Experiences (F.U.S.E.) provides up to $5,000 in financial assistance to students accepting unpaid or underfunded internships.
  • The Career Development and Professional Engagement office secured a $100,000 grant from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to transform federal work-study positions into internship and/or internship-like positions, reducing barriers to learner participation in applied and work-based learning on campus.
  • The Career Development and Professional Engagement office obtained a second $100,000 grant from SCHEV for institutional data collection on internships, leading to an increased understanding of where and how students secure an internship.
  • The Roy R. Charles Center for Academic Excellence helped developed a for-credit internship course structure, based on a faculty-supervised project that incorporates hands-on experiences with an analytic or research component and final product.

Whether sponsoring career-aligned internships within the college or university, or formalizing employer connections, leaders “should explore the most immediate and practical steps they can take within their institution’s context to widen access to this important practice,” Love adds.

Strada’s report is based on findings from the most recent National Survey of College Internships, a project developed by the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions and now administered in partnership with Strada. Insights include those on why students seek internships, common barriers to accessing internship opportunities, quality of the internship experience and how well students were able to connect their work-based learning to their career goals.

Insights to Action

The survey includes two- and four-year students, but some findings specific to third- and fourth-year students at four-year institutions from the 2023 survey (n = 2,824) are that:

  • Nearly every student (96 percent) participating in an internship sought ways to connect their learning with career opportunities, either to gain relevant experience in a given career (70 percent) or to explore a potential career interest (26 percent).
  • Three in four students (74 percent) were extremely or very satisfied with their internship, with satisfaction being linked to supervisor support and mentoring, career development and opportunities to build durable skills.
  • Most students who did not hold an internship wanted to do so, but reported that heavy course loads and other jobs limited their ability to participate. Financial challenges also hindered participation, as a third of internships are unpaid and even paid internships can involve hidden costs for students.
  • Many students reported being unsure of how to find internships or that there was a lack of available internships in their field.
  • Male students were less likely than female students to report financial obstacles to participation, such as insufficient pay or needing to work at their current job, as were continuing generation students relative to their first-generation peers.
  • Hispanic, Black and students of another race or ethnicity were more likely than white or Asian students to identify transportation as an obstacle.

Translating these insights into action items, the report includes recommendations for different players in the internship ecosystem. Employers, for instance, should prioritize investments in paid internships as a means to develop a more diversified workforce and talent pipeline, and to boost supervision and mentorship.

Institutional Internship Strategies

For educators and institutional leaders, meanwhile, Strada recommends:

Using internships intentionally. This means supporting students and employers in the development of structured learning plans and objectives so that students have clear targets for skill development or other goals they want to achieve during their internship. Dedicated advisers, including faculty advisers, could facilitate the development of these learning plans and assist students with securing aligned internships.

Preparing students to secure and thrive in internships. Additional ways students could engage in career exploration early in their academic journey could include site visits, employer visits to the classroom, and collaborative projects with employers that are embedded in coursework.

Connecting internships to other student experiences and supports. Integrate and coordinate internships and other experiential learning experiences across departments on campus to ensure a more holistic, student-centered approach that is based on research and uses resources effectively. This includes intentional collaboration across those entities that lead career services, service learning and alumni engagement.

Principles of Effective Work-Based Learning

The report also offers these principles for effective work-based learning:

  1. Pay. Unpaid internships are often out of reach for students who otherwise work to fund their education. The gold standard here is an “employer-paid, quality internship or work-based learning experience that is both affordable and accessible to a wide range of students.” Student-required costs are sometimes offset by government, philanthropic or institutional fundings but should be kept to a minimum.
  1. Credit. All internships and work-based learning experiences ideally should be for credit and/or part of course—and, crucially, aligned to the student’s major and field of study.
  1. Mentorship and coaching. Supervision from both the institution and the employer can make or break an experience. This includes guidance, feedback and career planning. And for colleges and universities explicitly, this might mean assigning advisers who help place students in internships.
  1. Skills and competencies. Internships and work-based learning experiences “should provide in-demand, transferable skills and related disciplinary knowledge that connect to a student’s education and career goals, as well as their talents and interests.” Such disciplinary skills should be identified and incorporated into orientation, mentoring and everyday work.
  1. Equity focus. Experiences should be designed and measured to be accessible to all interested learners, regardless of financial, logistical or systemic barriers.
  1. Availability. Quality opportunities should be “accessible through a range of education, training, employer, intermediary and workforce providers and contexts.” While developing additional research-based guidelines for internships and broader work-based learning requires both will and resources, research shows “the potential benefits often outweigh the costs.”

Some of these principles overlap the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ best practices for internship programs, which include paying interns, providing interns with real, challenging work assignments related to their major and/or skill set, providing interns with in-house training, having a dedicated manager for your internship program and aligning your internship programs with the organization’s overall goals for a diverse, inclusive workforce.

Next Story

Found In

More from Life After College