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The pandemic forced employers to adapt how, when and where people work, so the same should be true for how we approach internships.

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As employers grapple with economic constraints of the post-pandemic world and workers re-evaluate their expectations for flexibility, equity and respect in the workplace, higher education continues to lag in preparing the workforce’s rising generation. By fostering greater access to equitable and paid internships, higher education can be a force for change, helping break down barriers and better position students and employers for the future.

Considering that enrollment in college is dropping—with higher education losing one million students in the last two years alone and steady year-over-year losses for more than a decade—we must have a frank exploration of how students perceive the value of a degree. At the same time, the global talent shortage is amplified by the growing skills gap. Employers are desperate for prepared, career-ready talent. Add in the national dialogue and heightened awareness of the need to build more inclusive workplaces and we’ve got not just a jobs problem, but a skills and culture problem.

That is why the recent Student Voice survey of students about experiential education, career preparedness and access to internships is so important. There are several specific survey results from the survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, that stand out to me:

  • First-generation, community college and Black students are less likely to feel their college or university helped them to succeed in experiential education and internships, compared to their peers.
  • First-generation college students surveyed are also less likely to have had in-person internships. In fact, they are less likely to have had any internship or experiential education experience.
  • Students value partnerships built between their college and employers. Sixty-four percent of students say they want to see their college partner with local companies to offer internships, 48 percent want their college to partner with organizations that help students find internships and 42 percent want them to partner on developing pathways to hire former interns.

These data reinforce that we need to change how we prepare the demography of today’s students and learners for the workforce. Luckily, the solutions are ready and higher education, employers and organizations like the Washington Center, which I am privileged to lead, can act right now. Following are three factors to consider and take action on.

1. Real work should mean real pay for internships, particularly to increase equity and access.

At a time when we are continuing to evaluate the financial pathways for higher education, we should not overlook the added burden that unpaid or underpaid experiential education and internships can bring. Housing, transportation, the rising cost of living and many other factors impact the decisions of students to take internships.


A 2021 NACE brief shows that 42 percent of students are not too or not at all likely to be able to accept an in-person internship opportunity outside their commutable area (in other words, a place that would require a temporary relocation). Like with many issues, women, first-generation students and communities of color are hit the hardest; these individuals far less likely to secure a paid internship, furthering the barriers to equitable advancement. Even a major can impact compensation, with the Student Voice survey showing that science majors are more likely to say their most recent internship was paid compared to arts/humanities and social sciences majors.

Action: We need to bolster financial support to not only provide paid internships, but to allow for living costs, transportation and more to make experiential education accessible to all. Some higher ed institutions are already allocating or raising funds for stipends and financial support, but more equitable support from internship sites must be the endgame. At the Washington Center, currently about half our internships are paid, and we will achieve 100 percent paid experiences by no later than 2025.

2. One size does not fit all when it comes to experiential learning.

We need to eradicate the idea that a semester-long or a full-summer internship is the only model. The majority of today’s students are not living on campuses. They learn via Zoom; they commute and have family and caregiving responsibilities or jobs that prevent them from, say, moving to New York or San Francisco for 10 to 14 weeks for an internship. The pandemic forced employers to adapt how, when and where people work, so the same should be true for how we approach internships.

Action: It is critical that we embrace flexible, immersive pathways, including virtual, hybrid and in-person formats, across experiential education opportunities. At the Washington Center, we create learning and mentorship that takes place through real-world employer programs. We innovate with micro-internships for fast, project-based experiences, along with hybrid models that pair remote work with an in-person long weekend retreat of learning and networking. More options are needed to fit today’s nontraditional learners, students’ lived experiences and the evolving structures of employers, not a rigid model that mainly serves students of means.

3. Career-connected learning is more than professional experience and skills.

The shelf life of skills has diminished drastically due to technology and innovation. Today, the skills you acquire will last you, at best, five years. Too often, career centers on campuses are focused merely on résumé-building skills and interview practice; handy skills, but what about embracing the fact that hybridity is here to stay in the workplace? Project management, decision making, professional communications and “managing up” in a remote or hybrid workplace takes real-world experience for students to be prepared to meet the challenges of the workforce today and tomorrow.

Free access to survey results: segment and benchmark. Explore the data.Action: In addition to a wide range of skills training, I believe that mentorship, networking and access to professionals in diverse fields are key components to help students understand how to find their paths in our vast economy. At the Washington Center, we also believe that representation matters in every career. The opportunity for underrepresented students to see, meet with and learn from individuals in a wide range of roles can empower them to consider career pathways that they might never have thought of. For first-generation and historically marginalized students, this is even more important, as they have less access to professional networks and mentors.

The pandemic opened our eyes to inequities in many parts of our world. When it comes to the journey students take from academia into the professional world, we cannot allow the old system that only worked for some to keep out the talent.

As leaders, let us not turn our backs to expanding access, equity and opportunity when we can act now. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bolster students’ ability to access jobs and career pathways that they find rewarding in many ways. Employers cannot find enough talent to fill good jobs—it’s simple supply and demand, and we can fix it with career-connected learning programs in micro to macro experiences, so students don’t just survive, they thrive.

Together, we can close the gap by combining what is learned in the classroom with real-world job experiences, helping employers to access talent and build the inclusive workforce we all envision.

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