Is "Internship" a Bad Word?

Blog Post
older students in a classroom
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Feb. 13, 2024

For a long time, the policy world has believed that college students need work-based learning opportunities. Ideally, these opportunities should be related to their area of study, well-paid, and flexible enough for students to focus on their education while making connections that will help their careers.

Indeed, paid internships can create a vital link between education and employment for students. Paid internships are correlated with higher completion rates and higher paid employment a year after graduation regardless of field of study, gender, or race/ethnicity. For employers, internships are seen as an effective way to recruit new talent, with former interns more likely to stay at the company. These benefits have led policymakers and colleges to work on creating more paid internship opportunities, particularly for historically minoritized and low-income students. We have also called for an increase in these types of opportunities for community college students.

This focus on increasing the supply of high-quality paid internships, while necessary, has created a critical blind spot to the demand side of the problem: community college students who are already working when they enroll. Nearly two-thirds of community college students work, and over a third work full-time while enrolled. They are also more likely to be older and have caregiving responsibilities than students in other types of colleges and universities. The many roles that community college students may be juggling don’t lend themselves to time-limited internships, even if they are relevant to what students are learning in the classroom and have a good hourly wage.

After our initial research speaking to administrators of high-performing paid internship programs at community colleges, we decided to ask students themselves how they viewed paid internship opportunities. And we were in for a shock. Focus groups conducted with working community college students in Atlanta and Dallas last year showed that we had not given enough attention to community college students’ perception of paid work-based learning.

These students had strongly negative reactions to the idea of paid work-based learning opportunities offered through their college. Administrators and advisors at their colleges seemed distant. One participant told us, “I feel like my advisor is kind of useless, no help.” Students in our focus groups were not well-versed in what the college offered beyond class. When asked whether their college offered career services or support for finding a job, one participant simply said, “They may have it, but I don’t know about it.” When another participant was asked if they were familiar with paid internship opportunities they said, “Not at all. I have not been given any type of information on that.”

Students who had heard of paid internship opportunities had few positive things to say either. They worried that they would be poorly paid, overworked, and exploited. “It's a parasitic relationship,” one participant said when describing paid internships, “I'm not really getting anything out of it.” He went on, “I’ve heard from family that they got into an internship, and it was just basically the person taking advantage of my cousin. She wasn't really getting much out of it… It wasn't beneficial for her at all.”

However, most participants felt differently about their current employers, describing them as supportive of their education whether their job was directly related to their course of study or not. We heard things like “My boss is pretty flexible with scheduling,” and, “They actually encourage me to pursue my education.”

Internships, even paid ones, have a reputation problem with community college students with working lives who are loosely connected to their college. But paid internships do have benefits for students both in college completion and in the labor market.

The question is how can we make these benefits accessible to community college students who already work when internships themselves have such a damaged reputation? Over the next month and a half, we will be analyzing what students shared in these focus groups and proposing possible solutions to create opportunities for equitable access to the benefits of paid internships.