College internships are widely viewed across the postsecondary landscape as one of the high-impact practices that campuses should adopt, scale and sustain. The designation of internships as a HIP is based on analyses of the National Survey of Student Engagement data, which show that such practices are significant predictors of student learning and engagement. That has led to a national focus on high-impact practices, along with growing interest in students’ career and transitions to the workforce, with many institutions encouraging or even mandating students to have internships.
But as a researcher engaged in a national study of internships and their relationship to student success, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to proceed with caution when advocating for the widespread adoption of internships. Recommending or requiring that college students have them can be premature, inequitable and potentially dangerous.
Why is this the case?
The first reason is that the evidence on internships is questionable. The National Survey of Student Engagement asks students about their involvement in internships along with co-ops, field experiences, student teaching and clinical placements -- all in one single question. Consequently, the survey might overstate the impact of internships by failing to differentiate among those distinct types of experiential learning that may be embedded in a student’s program. And while some studies on internships do show positive impacts on student outcomes, the effects vary considerably, depending on students’ disciplinary and institutional affiliations, socioeconomic status and the nature of the internship itself.
Thus, accounting for the high degree of variation within internship formats is crucial, but NSSE’s simple yes/no question about participation doesn’t capture such nuances. In our research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, we’ve found that internships can last from a few days to several months, job-site supervision can range from exemplary to nonexistent, students may earn nothing or more than $15 an hour, and workplace tasks may vary from making photocopies to assisting with an archaeological dig in the field. That is why we aren’t interested in participation rates alone in our studies. Instead, we are exploring the relationship between student outcomes and specific design features of internships, like mentorship quality or duration.
The second reason is that too many campuses are not prepared to offer and monitor safe, high-quality internships. Some institutions in our nationwide College Internship Study do not have adequate staff to perform the quality control needed to ensure that internships aren’t simply a requirement to check off -- or worse, a shady if not illegal arrangement with an unknown employer.
Instead, to increase the prospects that an internship is truly a form of experiential learning, career services offices and departments need staff members and routinized procedures for recruiting and screening employers, ensuring that an educational component exists in students’ work, and for monitoring and evaluating students’ experiences and performance.
Many colleges and universities across the country, especially well-resourced private and public flagship institutions, have exemplary internship programs. But many more campuses are struggling with budget cuts or underfunded career services units that do not have those essential safeguards in place. Unfortunately, too many institutions don’t have the infrastructure to ensure that all internships are, in fact, high-impact practices.
The third and perhaps most troubling problem is the issue of equity and access to internship opportunities. Too many students lack the financial resources, social connections and time to find and pursue an internship. Our research shows that, of the students who have not had an internship, 64 percent wanted to but could not because of: 1) the need to work at their current job, 2) a heavy course load, 3) a lack of opportunities in their field and 4) insufficient pay. That those obstacles disproportionately impact low-income and working students, for whom an internship may be an especially important vehicle for social mobility, should raise red flags for campus leaders.
So what should colleges and universities do? I’m certainly not arguing that they should not promote internships. As a learning scientist who acknowledges how well-crafted experiential learning spaces can be transformative for students -- professionally, intellectually and socially -- one of my goals as a scholar is to see that high-quality internships are made available to every college student. But it is too early to label all internships as opportunities that students should or even must take before they graduate. Instead, higher education institutions should do three things:
1. Focus on institutional capacity first. Institutional leaders should pause any initiatives aimed at scaling up and/or mandating internships until they can take the necessary precautions to ensure those internships are safe, legal and carefully designed. The potentially negative impacts on students’ lives from an inadequately designed or supported internship are too great to rush what in practice are complex new programs.
Perhaps the single most important part of such a planning process is to ensure that colleges, departments or career services units have the capacity to offer safe and high-quality experiential learning opportunities at scale. That means that adequate staff members and advisers are in place to manage employer relations; ensure that intern tasks are meaningful and related to course work; and counsel and monitor students’ experiences before, during and after the internship. Essentially, when creating or expanding internship programs, institutions should invest the same care, time and resources they do to launch a new academic program.
2. Create support systems so that all students can participate in internships. To avoid internships being yet another vehicle for reproducing privilege and thwarting social mobility, institutional leaders should create and sustain support systems for low-income, working and/or first-generation students. Those students are at a particular disadvantage, given the predominance of unpaid internships and the important role that social connections play in securing an internship. Some solutions include only advertising paid positions, providing grants for students seeking unpaid positions and creating ample opportunities for networking.
3. Embed problem-based learning into all academic programs and courses. Finally, higher education leaders must recognize that two of the benefits of internships -- experiential learning and making professional connections -- are also available through well-designed problem-based learning in the classroom. By incorporating real-world problems of practice in hands-on classroom activities, students can apply their academic knowledge to authentic tasks while also sharpening their teamwork and communication skills. Bringing in guest speakers or professionals who can assess final project presentations also gives students opportunities to meet potential employers without leaving the campus.
Granted, these experiences may not be as influential as an internship. But they can be especially effective for students who can’t take time off work or who don’t have access to extensive professional networks.
I have no doubt that certain internships can be life changing for college students. But until we can guarantee that our institutions and employer partners are truly prepared and capable of offering robust, equitable and transformative experiences for all students, an indiscriminate embrace of internships could, in fact, be inimical to our students’ well-being.