At first glance, the findings about virtual internships in the recent Student Voice survey seem to underscore the conventional wisdom that an in-person experience is always better. When 1,287 students were asked whether they were able to network with professionals who could help them in a future job search, there was a full nine-percentage-point gap between those who did in-person or hybrid internships and their virtual internship counterparts, according to the survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan.
But the reality is more complex. For one thing, neither group had spectacularly high networking success: 38 percent for in person versus 29 percent for virtual. For another, four in 10 students reported having no internship or experiential learning experience of any kind while in college.
Taken together, these data snapshots point to the need for a much broader rethinking of student internships. Rather than focus on differences between modes of internships, we should focus on two things: first, putting these vital opportunities for hands-on career exposure within reach of many more students; second, ensuring that whatever the kind of internships, they do help students develop both meaningful experience and meaningful networks.
After all, the world has changed. We shouldn’t be treating in-person versus virtual anything as a zero-sum game. Today’s reality is a hybrid of virtual and in-person experiences. In postsecondary education, this reality is coupled with an increasingly global candidate pool and a growing demand for work-integrated learning. As universities evolve in the face of a demographic cliff, the goal should be to have more of every kind of opportunity that will maximize students’ chances to get ahead. Innovative and visionary approaches will be required to achieve this, including embedding internships into the academic curriculum for credit.
We certainly know that students crave the add-ons to education that really help them win the best job opportunities and to advance in their careers. Among alumni, a survey by Strada Education Network showed that graduates who reported having a high-quality experience that connected their studies to careers had higher earnings and were much more likely to agree their education was worth what it cost. So with virtual and hybrid classes and jobs proliferating, an openness to high-quality virtual internships as part of a larger and richer college-to-careers landscape seems imperative.
Overcoming the limits of geography to gain professional experience is a massive advantage of virtual internships for a large share of students. The Student Voice survey shows that even something like a long commute is likely to be a barrier to accepting an in-person internship for about half of all students surveyed (49 percent). That indicator by itself suggests that creating more accessible internship alternatives would appeal to many undergraduates.
What’s more, the value of flexibility and convenience is even greater for several key subpopulations critical to enrollment growth: students in rural areas, international students and working adults.
Rural students in particular stand to gain from geographic flexibility. Virtual internships have seen immense innovation and increased buy-in from rural campuses seeking to provide their students with increased access to professional experiences, despite the lack of regional or local industry.
For example, SUNY Potsdam leveraged funding to provide 20 full-semester remote internships, resulting in students gaining 12 credits toward their degree and an enhanced résumé with great real-world work experience.
The same opening up of opportunity applies to international students—sometimes in surprising directions. Those studying abroad but looking to return home postgraduation need to grow their domestic professional networks to compete professionally against those who stayed close to home to study. Conversely, students around the world who plan to study in their home country may face limited employment opportunities and have a strong interest in gaining global work experience.
At Botho University in Botswana, for example, a virtual internship program places students in regional companies throughout Africa and beyond, giving them exceptional work experience they wouldn’t be able to find at home.
A third group that stands to benefit disproportionately from access to more and better internship opportunities is working adults. This large and growing university population is often cited as an example of how new online programs often didn’t cannibalize existing enrollment but instead opened up enrollment to brand-new groups for whom flexibility was key. The same students have just as much need for practical work experience as traditional-age students, but with a necessity of fitting that experience into much more complicated work and family schedules. For them, the possible advantages of in-person experiences are much less relevant than whether they will have any internship opportunities at all.
It’s time for universities to be proactive about giving all students—including those three key subpopulations—the same mixture of in-person, hybrid and virtual work experience that has now become common in every other area touched by higher ed. A changing world requires changing modalities. In the fast-changing education-to-workforce reality—more hybrid, more global and evolving demographically—we need to embrace a both-and worldview and work collectively to focus on more options, and more effective options, for all.
Read more about the Student Voice survey on internships, including a look at what they want and get from these experiences.