The academic year may have just barely begun, but for many career centers, the focus is on getting students ready for post-graduate employment.
The University of Pittsburgh this year is promising that any student who completes a fairly extensive internship preparation program will get the staff’s help to land an internship or other experiential learning opportunity before graduation.
The program will give the 18,000 undergraduates at Pitt’s main campus a path to a critical component of career preparation, university officials say. And while other experts generally praise the idea, they also note it will only benefit students if the learning experience remains as good as it would if there were no guarantee.
In other words, it shouldn’t sacrifice quality for quantity.
Pitt says it won’t.
"Our staff of employment development specialists is working diligently to identify the best opportunities for our students, and we are confident in our ability to match the volume of students participating in the program to beneficial opportunities,” said Cheryl Finlay, director of the Career Development and Placement Assistance program at Pitt. “Students who participate fully in our internship preparation program should be well-prepared for quality experiential learning opportunities.”
The CDPA has tripled its staff to help manage the project.
"It is quite an undertaking," Finlay said.
The ultimate objective for the program is to raise employment rates for new graduates. The goal is to hit 95 percent; last year, 91 percent of new graduates were working, in graduate school or volunteering, CDPA internship coordinator Alyson Kavalukas said.
Results from Inside Higher Ed's recent survey of admissions directors  indicate that for students -- and their parents even more so -- job placement is a very high priority. Eighty-four percent of directors said prospective students place "high importance" on the ability of degree programs to help them get a job, and 96 percent said the same of parents. Four in five directors, meanwhile, said their institution is "increasing attention on the ability" of degree programs to help get students good jobs. And 88 percent said that to stay competitive, liberal arts programs must increase attention to helping students get employed.
It's good to see institutions designating internships as "mission-critical," said Robert Shindell, director of content and resource development for the consulting and research firm Intern Bridge.
"Assisting students transitioning to the world of work is one of the most important things that we can do in higher education," Shindell said.
But following through on such a big (though admirable) promise could be difficult to pull off, said Mike True, internship director at Messiah College. For instance, lots of students might aspire to a given type of internship that is in short supply.
"[Messiah] makes the statement that we can't guarantee that a student will get exactly what they want; there's just no way we can do that. And I don't think Pitt can do that either," True said. "They could get to the point they have more students than they have opportunities."
"Is it feasible? Yes," True said. "Could it become overwhelming for the staff at Pitt? Absolutely. It depends on the student response and student perseverance throughout the process."
To qualify for the offer, students must first participate in a group session that covers interviewing, resume-writing and job searching strategies. The students review resumes and do mock interviews with counselors before getting individual help during the search strategy. After an internship is secured, the group meets again to discuss things like workplace attire and behavior.
"We want students to really go into these opportunities knowing that there is the potential for them to convert the internship into a full-time position," Kavalukas said. And if the students continue to work with Pitt staff after the internship, they can get help finding a job, too.
The endeavor is similar in philosophy to the cooperative education programs that institutions such as Drexel University,  the University of Cincinnati  and Northeastern University  have championed for decades, in which the curriculum is blended with the internship experience, and extensive employer connections and workplace training give students a jump-start on post-graduation employment.
As of now, about 2,000 to 3,000 Pitt students intern each year, and Finlay plans to track how that number increases. She also said she is "still investigating" possible sources of funding for students who want to accept unpaid internships but can't afford it.
Around the same time Pitt announced its initiative, the much-different Johnson & Wales University made a new promise of its own. The career-oriented institution will use a new $4 million fund to ensure all students can choose the internship that's best for them -- even if it doesn't pay.
"Our students were delaying [interning] or simply choosing not to do it because they couldn't afford it," said Maureen Dumas, vice president of experiential education and career services at Johnson & Wales. "We truly believe that there's a value that goes beyond that monetary compensation."
So in September of 2011 Dumas introduced the stipend, which gives students up to $3,000 for unpaid internships, which they can use at any point over their four years there. Since the stipend system began one year ago, Dumas said, in addition to seeing more employers visiting campus, the number of Johnson & Wales students interning has risen from 3,800 to 4,100. She believes the increase has mainly come from students who aren't required by their department to intern.
"That was a goal," Dumas said. "We wanted all students to have this opportunity."
Albert C. Cabral, director emeritus of internships at Nazareth College and past president of the National Society for Experiential Education, said the two universities' initiatives are indicative of the potential impact of institutionalizing experiential learning.
"The key to any internship program is its integrity as an experiential learning activity," Cabral said in an e-mail. "Experiential learning is moving to the center of the missions and strategic identities of colleges and universities nationwide and innovative programs such as those at Pitt or Johnson & Wales are examples of that movement."