CCWT Offers Rare, Critical Overview of Student Internships

Says not enough research exists on work-based learning and its outcomes

September 26, 2017

One of the key findings in CCWT’s review is that the overall design of most internship programs is haphazard and inconsistent.

One of the key findings in CCWT’s review is that the overall design of most internship programs is haphazard and inconsistent.

Many policymakers, employers, educators and career services professionals seem to agree that internships are beneficial to college students. President Trump recently lauded the value of apprenticeships, and Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has considered making internships a mandatory graduation requirement for students in the UW system.

On the surface, work-based learning appears to be beneficial for everyone. Employers get an inexpensive extra hand who could later become a new hire, students acquire valuable, real-world experience while still in school and educators enhance a student’s classroom knowledge with hands-on learning.

However, look a little closer, says Matt Hora, director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. “Internships are valuable opportunities for students. But there is not enough research on how they should be designed and implemented for them to be improved upon,” explains Hora.

CCWT researchers just completed a three-month preliminary review of literature from around the world on the subject of work-based learning, and their findings likely will surprise many people, especially policymakers. “Before we start pushing colleges and universities to start offering more internships, we need to take a step back and not just do more research, but be more cautious and evidence-based when we start mandating them for students.”

One of the key findings in CCWT’s review is that the overall design of most internship programs is haphazard and inconsistent. “Governments and higher education institutions are rushing into the internship game, enthusiastically cheerleading the concept, without giving careful thought to how exactly work-based learning programs should be set up,” says Hora.

Specifically, CCWT researchers discovered a lack of attention to certain design characteristics of an internship, such as duration, frequency during a student’s college years, quality of mentorships on the job site, compensation, coordination between educators and employers, autonomy on the job, clarity of tasks and feedback mechanisms for students.

“There are a lot of components to an internship that should be left to the discipline, institution or individual employer to determine.” Hora adds, “Yet, I think these important design principles need to be followed by everyone and no one is even talking about them.”

Even so, there are success stories out there. Hora points to UW‒Madison’s School of Business as an organization that is doing a model job of organizing and managing internships. As director of career services in the school’s undergraduate business program, Jamie Marsh and her staff have matched the program’s 2,500 students with 550 employers across the country just this past year.

While internships are not required for students to earn a business degree, Marsh says that 90 percent of students in the business school complete at least one internship by the time they graduate from the program. In the 2016-2017 academic year, 35 percent of those students converted internships into full-time job offers.

“We work proactively with employers to develop a meaningful internship for students and build an educational experience in the workplace,” says Marsh, whose team carefully vets jobs posted and promoted to students. “Every student’s needs are different, so we don’t force a cookie-cutter approach.” Nevertheless, she agrees with CCWT’s assessment that some standardized structure should be in place. “You have to have some proven best practices in place to present to employers to help design an internship that is a win/win for everyone.”

What about the age-old debate over paid internships versus unpaid? In CCWT’s literature review, researchers are very clear on this subject: “With the price tag of college and basic needs increasing, unpaid internships can arguably be considered unethical and unfair.”

Moreover, says Hora, not compensating interns for their work opens the door for exploitation. “A student could be in a business only making copies or coffee just to check off a requirement and that doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.”

Employers also need to be very careful and deliberate in setting up internship programs with colleges and universities because it could backfire on them, says Hora, referring to some unexpected research they uncovered. “For instance, if onsite mentorship is subpar, students will be turned off to working for that company full-time after graduation.”

CCWT researchers plan to conduct a more in-depth, longitudinal study on work-based learning and its effects on student outcomes, starting in Wisconsin and later widening its scope nationally.

Until more evidence demonstrates that the necessary resources and coordinated support are in place between faculty, employers and career services professionals, CCWT advocates that policymakers should not be mandating internships.

“For states to pull off a mandate like this, you need thousands of businesses ready to accept interns for meaningful work, to provide pay and have onsite mentors willing to work closely with students. And nobody has done the homework yet to see if those employers even exist,” Hora says.

SPECIAL NOTE: On Friday, September 29, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., CCWT will host a special event on the importance of the skills gap and its role in higher education. Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, will lead the symposium in the Wisconsin Idea Room at the Education Building, 1000 Bascom Mall.