Three out of four of all students are missing out on internships, an opportunity to gain work experience in a setting that is considered a critical onboarding ramp into a professional career after graduation.
Nearly 30% of all US college students took internships the year leading into the pandemic, and that rate dipped as low as 17% in 2022, according to a recent study by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. Black student participation started much lower at 18.8% and dropped to 15.3%.
This growing gap won’t correct itself by leaving employers alone to solve it themselves. Universities and colleges have an important role to play to reverse this trend and at the same time drive greater equity in who has access to these career-defining opportunities.
Help students visualize their potential
By providing more support within the context of a degree program, universities can help close the internship gap and open the door to that first professional work experience that is transformative for a student’s future career prospects.
For example, the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business has developed an internship program that specifically identifies the first-year students with the least amount of work experience who may be at a disadvantage in the competitive market for internships. The school helps place these students in internships the summer after their freshman year in order to give them a leg up as they apply for internships during their sophomore and junior years.
Going beyond the in-person internship
Universities know their students best and are in a position to recognize that traditional full-time, in-person internships are not always the answer. The study by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions showed that the top two reasons cited for not having an internship were not having access to an internship opportunity (71%) and being busy with another job (66%).
Schools can reimagine internships to better fit the lives of these students by offering programs that are a shorter time commitment or that can be completed online, opening the door to many more opportunities that are not constrained by location.
At Arizona State University, the Global Education Office launched an online internship program in 2020 that has placed over 400 students in internships at companies all over the world from Ireland to Singapore that allow students to complete their work on their own schedules. Many of these students are in the university’s online degree programs that serve a population that is older with more family and work commitments.
Serina Chea graduated from Arizona State University’s online bachelor’s program in May and was able to complete a remote internship in between her many responsibilities as a mother, student and supervisor at Starbucks.
“As a busy mother and student, my internship through ASU allowed me to network and gain new skills in a way that fit my schedule and made me feel more confident,” says Chea.
Meeting students’ needs
For students like Chea, universities can help find work experience opportunities in a student’s field of choice that offer more flexibility. By providing the additional scaffolding and support, universities can make internships more accessible to students who have traditionally been left out of the market for internships.
For example, Landmark College in Vermont exclusively serves neurodiverse students that often face challenges securing spots in competitive internships. This summer, the school launched an internship program placing students with companies that welcome the opportunity to take on neurodivergent interns.
“Our population faces numerous barriers to employment, so we have to lead the way for both the neurodivergent and neurotypical,” says Jan Coplan, Senior Director of Career Connections at Landmark College. “Most universities don’t think about career paths until junior or senior year. At Landmark, we’re starting the career conversation much sooner.”
As the supply and demand gap for internships widens and increases disparities, it’s time for universities to reimagine their role in this indispensable college experience. We need more higher education institutions to recognize the value of internships and to make them more accessible to all students no matter how they learn, where they live, or who they are.