What does a quality internship program look like?

Unpaid internships are not feasible for students working their way through college, says a new report from Strada Education Foundation. Government entities, education providers and philanthropic resources should be used to keep costs at a minimum.

Colleges are falling behind in producing career-ready students, and their lack of support in helping students gain internships is a big reason for that, said Daniel Nivern, CEO of Virtual Internships, an accessibility service. And while about 70% of first-year students plan to complete one during college, less than half of students succeed, and less than a quarter are paid, according to the Strada Education Foundation.

Students from under-resourced backgrounds are less likely to seek unpaid internships because they are juggling the costs of housing and other necessities away from college, Jane Swift, president of Education at Work, wrote in a recent Fortune article.

“Internships, by design, are meant to give students and recent graduates a lasting leg up as they begin their careers,” Swift noted. “However, the internship divide means the students who have access to these important opportunities are typically those who already have resources and connections.”

In light of these findings, Strada has released a set of recommendations for institutions looking to improve high-quality internship experiences and promote work-based learning opportunities.


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The report is based on key findings from the 2023 National Survey of College Internships developed by the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions and in collaboration with Strada.

The 6 traits of a quality work-based learning program

Institutions, employers and researchers all have a part to play in developing policies that create strong internship pathways, according to the report. Their coordinated efforts should tackle:

  1. Pay: Unpaid options are not feasible for students working their way through college. Government entities, education providers or philanthropic
    resources should be used to ensure student-required costs are kept at a minimum.
  2. Credit: Internships should count as credit toward students’ majors.
  3. Mentorship and coaching: Students should receive some form of advising or guidance from their institution and employer.
  4. Skills and competencies: Ensure interns are gaining relevant, transferable skills that connect to their career goals, talents and interests.
  5. Equity focus: Ensure all students—regardless of financial, systemic or logistical barriers—are provided equal opportunity.
  6. Availability: Quality internships should be accessible across a range of contexts.

How educators transfer research to action

  • Use internships intentionally. Advisors must develop structured learning plans for students and share them with employers. This way, students have clear targets for skill development and other goals they want to achieve during their internship.
  • Prepare students to secure and thrive in internships. Expose students to the marketplace through company site visits, employer visits in the classroom and other career exploration activities early in their academic journey.
  • Connect internships to other student experiences and supports. Ensure internship access is top-of-mind across university departments, including career services, service learning and alumni engagement.
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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