Learn and Earn at Community Colleges

Blog Post
Photo by Leon on Unsplash
June 7, 2021

Over the course of the pandemic community colleges have lost almost 10 percent of their enrollment. As we emerge from the economic downturn, we need to bring students back. One way to do this is to connect them to better jobs while they are enrolled. About 80 percent of community college students work with about 39 percent working full time. But high-quality, paid internship programs are all too rare in this sector.

Bunker Hill Community College is changing that. Their students’ average age is 26, about half are Pell-eligible, most attend part-time, and 60 percent are students of color. But nine years ago many of them were not getting the thing they needed most: professional job experience. This is because Bunker Hill did not have a set of well-paying, prestigious internship opportunities ready to serve its students.

The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership--a group of CEOs from Boston’s largest companies--came together to change that through the Learn and Earn program. The corporate partners provide money for the college to staff the new program, a transportation stipend for student interns, and a wage of at least $15 an hour. They also agree to provide a mentor who attends an orientation on how to support the type of students Bunker Hill serves. All of the internships were credit-bearing. That first year, five firms sponsored 20 student interns.

Since then, more than 400 interns have cycled through the program, and many of them have received job offers from the companies where they interned. For instance, Raytheon hired a business major intern as a human resources associate. Last year the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum gave all of their 10 intern slots to Learn and Earn. The pay for interns has increased to at least $18 an hour. And the college has expanded the partnership to small companies and non-profit organizations who contribute a subsidized amount for the wages and travel stipends. And over 46 local partners now participate in the Learn and Earn internship experience.

The college also found that many low-income students were not applying for internships because they worried they were not prepared. To address this, they aligned all of the competencies needed for the internships with the outcomes of classes students take. That way, when recruiting underserved students, the college can tell them with confidence that they are prepared for the experience.

We need to provide more support for community colleges to create this kind of internship program. For instance, colleges should consider using their federal Higher Education Emergency Funds to support this type of innovation. They could use the money to:

  • Subsidize student wages and travel stipends for internships with small businesses and nonprofits.
  • Support the staff time needed to generate the internships, organize the orientations for the mentors and students, and the faculty time to oversee the internships. Colleges should generate data on how well the new program works so it can be used to justify the use of general funds and increased funding from the state. Colleges could think about a structure where the subsidies for staff decline over time as they make an argument for sustained funding from other sources.

Federal, state, and philanthropic funders should also consider supporting a learning community where colleges can come together to share what is working and address challenges in creating accessible internships. They could also use the community to figure out how to fund professional development for faculty and staff and how to gather data on the impact to leverage additional funding.

Community colleges play an important role in connecting people to the labor market. And right now, people across the country are struggling to find good jobs. With additional investment, we can support students returning to college while providing them the job they need to stay enrolled.

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Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE