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Eight what-if questions for colleges to ask about internships (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

There’s no question about it: agile colleges and universities wishing to clarify their value, produce marketable graduates and level the economic playing field for their students must immediately make internships much more widely available than they already are. Results from a recent Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, and the flurry of thoughtful articles in response, make it clearer than ever that internships must play a large part in the future of higher education. The various responses to this survey also made it clear that the traditional three-credit internship as we know it is no longer good enough. For colleges and universities to remain first destinations for career-minded high school graduates, they must embrace change in their internship programs, and they must do so quickly.

It’s worth repeating a few of the Student Voice internship-specific revelations here, namely that only 39 percent of college students and recent graduates had had an internship or experiential learning opportunity as of summer 2022. To make matters worse, only 14 percent of students surveyed who undertook internships received academic credit for their work, and 43 percent of those internships were unpaid.

The conversation around this survey makes it clear that the problems with internships are specific and systematic, and that for colleges and universities the imperative to change is clear. That said, for institutions whose leaders are willing to ask “what if?” when it comes to internships, there’s a whole host of specific, practical ways to yield immediate, tangible improvements using tools already at their disposal.

For example, what if colleges and universities committed to offering academic internships primarily during their regular (usually fall and spring) session? At most higher education institutions, coursework outside the regular academic year falls outside financial aid packages. This means that summer-term students must pay out of pocket in order to earn the same credit that would have been covered during the academic year. As a result, many students who undertake summer internships avoid taking them for credit, which means that they fall outside the purview of academic oversight and support.

I’m also interested in what would happen if more colleges and universities without established co-op programs were willing to regularly enroll students in internships of six to nine credits. The math on this one is clear: the number of credits per internship should directly impact the depth of experience available to students. Consider, for example, a student earning one to three non–co-op credits as part of an internship experience. It’s likely that this student needs to maintain a roster of at least nine other credits—typically three other courses—that term in order to remain a full-time student. Clearly, students in this position will be unable to devote much time to an immersive learning experience; in fact, if their internship is of much consequence they risk the ability to succeed in their other courses.

With this in mind, what if colleges and universities made the relatively easy catalog change of listing internships as not only repeatable, but stackable? A three-credit internship might be doubled to six or even tripled to nine credits in a single semester in order to amplify the bandwidth a student can devote to the experience.

Institutions moving in this direction will find that students enrolling in six to nine credits of internship typically need to register for three to six credits more to remain enrolled full-time: I would argue this is less a problem to solve than an opportunity to enhance an internship’s educational possibilities. While a student might benefit from enrolling in a regularly rostered course in their program of study, we might also view these final credits as an opportunity to dissolve the false wall between the classroom and “the real world.”

To this end, what would happen if colleges and universities asked teaching faculty from multiple disciplines to play active roles in internships? Why not take inspiration from pre-existing models in which faculty guide student experience, such as first-year seminar programs, or living and learning communities, and aid students in processing, reflecting on and making the most of their internship experiences? Surely, there’s more to be gained by pairing the strengths and possibilities of internship and classroom work, rather than instinctively pitting the two against each other. Many of us remember vividly how much we learned from our own first work experiences, but what if we’d been encouraged to think about them?

I would also argue that it’s not enough for internship courses to exist in a catalog or to appear in a list of program electives. A college touting the value and availability of internships should put its program requirements where its mouth is, meaning that it’s worth asking what would happen if internships were built into an institution’s degree programs. Merely making credited internships available as electives will not result in more students enrolling in internships, particularly as more and more students find themselves struggling to meet four-year graduation goals. Given that it’s already a fairly common practice for institutions to offer course requirement reductions for students who choose to double major, it’s a reasonable step further for institutions seeking to express experiential learning as a core value to make these same adjustments for students seeking robust internship experiences.

Once institutions commit their students to completing internships as part of their degree programs, that institution must also commit to offering equitable opportunities to students. One solution to this is to consider, what if universities purposefully built corporate partnerships to include commitments to engage students in internships right there on campus? Full disclosure: I’ve worked with such a company for nearly two years now, and I’ve seen firsthand the enhanced career outcomes, opportunities for campus place making and impressive sense of student belonging that well-designed partnerships in this vein can offer. Looking around most campuses, I see lots of missed opportunities for this sort of work, as universities continue to privilege a model of exporting students to off-campus internships.

I hope it goes without saying that institutionwide internship programs require more than mission statements: they’re a real monetary investment. If a college or university wants to engage all students in internships then they also have to wonder what it would look like for internship offices to be well resourced and operated by an administrator with an institutionwide mandate to lead, outside of any particular school or program. To be frank, it probably looks expensive. That said, it’s very rare to see a higher education strategic plan that doesn’t feature experiential education as an institutionwide priority, so the basis for funding often already exists.

While we’re at it, let’s consider revisiting the way we frame internships in the first place. The phrase “workforce development” evokes specters of training and skill building designed to primarily benefit employers, but what if academia sought to reclaim internships as legitimate sites of learning and self-exploration? During my years as an English professor at liberal arts institutions, I watched many of my students labor under the misconception that they should only pursue internships in publishing or editing, which was an error that career services and faculty did little to disabuse them of. Looking back, I see the folly of this: if there’s one thing that higher education institutions of all stripes can agree on, it’s that a depth and breadth of experience helps to make a person who they are. Sure, each internship will yield technical skills, but if we guided students to consider the transferable skills, we’d make more transformative experiences for more students.

In the end, experiential learning is not a monolith; it comes in many forms, some of which are more appropriate to one institution’s mission than another. As colleges and universities approach the edge of the much-discussed demographic cliff, a renewed commitment to innovative internship education isn’t just one of many things a higher education institution can do to differentiate itself from peers and competitors; it’s also a highly impactful practice that when effectively marshaled in innovative ways can deepen student experience.

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Eight what-if questions for colleges to ask about internships (opinion)
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