If Internships Are So Important, Why Aren’t More Successful?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

In an op-ed in the New York Times last month, Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker, speaks to the value of college internships. Walker noted the personal impact: “As a low-income kid from a small town who entered college without an extended network, my internships equipped me with the skills, confidence and relationships to channel my potential into a rewarding career.”

Mr. Walker offers a blunt assessment of internships: “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” He suggests that those who want to improve growing levels of inequality “actually – and often unconsciously – reinforce the dynamics that create inequality in their own lives.”

His solution is to offer paid internships, with the government stepping in to compensate interns in work settings like the nonprofit community for those students who do not have other established networks to support them. Mr. Walker provides examples of federal programs that could be used to “facilitate internship grants for low-income students.” He notes further that among the criteria in internship selection used by the Ford Foundation is the requirement that interns must be the recipients of need-based financial aid.

It’s an intriguing idea, especially given the overwhelming statistical evidence of long-term income stagnation leading to deepening economic stratification. Increasingly, the polls suggest that income inequality is the dominant concern among Americans and partly responsible for the rising tension and political chasm that exist among American voters in a very uncertain political season.

What hits home in Mr. Walker’s op-ed is an even broader problem. America’s colleges and universities are failing to play as large a role as they could to build a productive workforce of liberally educated Americans. Internship programs offer a splendid opportunity to bridge gaps between what a college education offers and what a workforce needs.

Mr. Walker is right to suggest that current internship programs that often rely heavily on alumni and parent networks reinforce older practices favoring the privileged few among students. Who you know matters with many of these internships, with an often disproportionate number of internships occurring in areas like management, finance, communication, and engineering.

Mr. Walker’s comments provide an opportunity to speculate on how and why internship programs might be strengthened at the institutional level. Here are a few suggestions:

  • College career counseling offices, where many internship programs are housed, must receive more attention from senior higher education administrators and faculty;
  • These offices should broaden their internships to include not only professional programs in which employers value internships as early employment screenings but also programs in the humanities, arts, and social sciences to provide a more comprehensive array of internships;
  • College strategic plans must emphasize the tactical value of internships, linking career counseling at a minimum to alumni, development, and enrollment efforts to differentiate their academic programs from their peers;
  • Internships provide both cash and in-kind potential for fundraisers seeking to link the giving passion of donors to the practical need to place liberally trained college graduates into the global workforce;
  • Internships offer an opportunity to define an academic major by providing practical experience as a value added that increases student employment potential in weaker employment fields; and
  • Internship placements likely also translate into higher retention and graduation rates and promote the value of a four-year degree to transfer applicants.

The Ford Foundation’s concentration of need-based financial aid recipients in their internship screening is admirable. It is a critical component within a more comprehensive institutional program that should receive special emphasis. Yet for colleges and universities, it is important to look at the full complement of students to be certain that a broad range of internships are generally available.

This presumes, of course, that career counseling offices maintain strict control over their programs to ensure that internships reach the best qualified and best prepared rather than reinforce class and cultural stereotypes. How the program is managed is key to whether colleges actively step in to address basic inequalities.

There is a strong additional message in Mr. Walker’s comments that state and federal officials must consider. Many of the “flipping McDonald’s hamburgers” complaints about recent college graduates confuse the real problem.

America must provide clearer and more explicit links between what students learn and how they transition into the global workforce. Mr. Walker’s call for federally-financed internships could provide such a link.

Let’s hope that states and the new federal leadership see the value in such a strategy as among a number of innovative pilot efforts to better secure a trained workforce of liberally educated employees. It’s time to look for creative ways to bring colleges and the government together as partners to work on solutions on which we can agree.

One thought on “If Internships Are So Important, Why Aren’t More Successful?

  1. Experience in both the US and internationally point to a number of issues that need serious consideration:
    a) even in professional internships such as nursing, the cost to the company or institution can be very high, particularly for short term placements, paid or not. Time expended is one aspect. Also, few employees, even professionals in areas such as engineering and health care, are trained as educators. Some interns of longer duration and full time can start to amortize the cost but recovery.

    b) Discipline trained faculty are content experts and, in many areas, lack the time or incentives to cover the “soft skills” or to participate with the employer in adequately supporting the intern. HR specialists in the corporation and counselors at the universities have other sets of problems

    The president of the Ford Foundation is basing his ideas on the experience of “one”. He is wrong when he asserts that talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not whether one measures physical talent in athletics or music or one measures talent in knowledge actualization. Not everyone wins an olympic medal or a Nobel prize.

    One does not argue against the idea of “internships” selectively. But these are not a panacea for the problems facing the world starting out with a lack of social, cultural and fiscal capital. Head start programs are one admission of these issues for youth. The same kinds of costs in human and fiscal capital will be required if the idea of a universal “internship” program is to meet the idea being propagated by Ford Foundation’s president. One can look to Europe and their imbedded programs and the many programs at the MBA level.

    If, as being proposed by both political parties, the universities become responsible when students incur debt that can’t be liquidated, then we may see the universities demanding federal support and may see some internal adjustments which could include such programs. But the ramification for the HEI’s as institutions and the faculty are substantive.

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