When Kim Churches took on the job as head of The Washington Center, a nonprofit organization that provides college students with internships, she was on a mission. It was the fall of 2021. The U.S. was just emerging from months of lockdowns and all-remote work and learning, which had exposed and exacerbated huge inequities in educational opportunities.

“I wanted to ensure greater inclusion,” Churches said — which, in her case, meant expanding access to internships, particularly for students from historically underrepresented groups.

Internships have long been a coveted component of the college experience, but now the pressure to secure them — and to secure them earlier — is growing, as students and their parents look for ways to stand out on job applications, universities work to demonstrate a high return on investment and employers increasingly rely on internships as part of their strategies to recruit and vet candidates. But traditional internships are not universally accessible.

“At any college now, the first thing the parents ask is, ‘How are the internships?’ ” Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said. “It’s a prized commodity.”

Related: College leaders refocus attention on their students’ top priority: Jobs after graduation

Groups like Churches’ have built their reputations by placing students in high-quality summer or semester-long internships. But these often pay little or no money and require interns to pay for their own travel and housing — thereby excluding many students. Recognizing that, The Washington Center and other organizations have in recent years created new programs to serve a broader pool of learners.

“Not everybody is a traditional 18- to 22-year-old student,” Churches said. “Not everybody can take an internship out of their geographic area for a full summer or semester.”

Kim Churches, president of The Washington Center, welcomes participants to an experiential learning program in Washington, D.C., that offers skills training and job networking opportunities in cybersecurity and other in-demand industries. Credit: Image provided by The Washington Center

Nationwide, slightly more than 60 percent of students graduating in 2023 completed an internship during college, according to survey data collected by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. At elite universities, that figure was much higher — almost 90 percent at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, according to the school’s career services office.

But at the City College of New York, where two-thirds of students receive Pell Grants, only 35 to 40 percent of students typically complete an internship before graduation, school administrators said.

“I would think that number would be higher for those who wanted to do one but couldn’t,” Katie Nailler, director of the college’s Career and Professional Development Institute, said.

The college tries to make sure students get paid or at least subsidized when they do an internship. It sponsors paid internships itself with faculty members and college centers. And it partners with external organizations such as LifeSci NYC, a public-private initiative to support the STEM industry in New York, to place students in paid summer or academic-year internships.

But in addition to programs that pay students, “We also need programs that are flexible,” said Francesca Anselmi, executive director of the Office for Experiential Learning at City College, pointing out that many students have year-round jobs and need to keep them in the summer.

On the other side of the equation, employers are increasingly turning to internships as part of their recruiting pipeline.

Erica Kryst, executive director of Cornell Career Services, said that in more than 10 years working in this field, she has seen employers — especially big companies in finance, consulting and tech — increasingly focus on college juniors they hire as interns rather than on seniors applying for full-time jobs.

“Internships are almost viewed as a long-term interview process,” she said.

Eight out of 10 employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said that internships provided the best return on investment as a recruiting strategy, compared to career fairs, on-campus visits, panels or other activities. Between two similar job candidates, an internship in the industry is “the number-one tie-breaker,” said Joshua Kahn, associate director of research and public policy at NACE.

“There’s a race to get talent early,” said Barbara Hewitt, executive director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. That, in turn, has resulted in a “focus on getting practical experience in many ways earlier in students’ academic careers,” Hewitt said.

Today, students have more options for earning that type of experience. The Washington Center, for example, last year began offering fully funded, short-term career-readiness programs. One was a cybersecurity program, consisting of a paid virtual “micro-internship” and online training in professional skills. The program also included an all-expenses paid gathering in Washington, D.C., where participants visited Amazon and Verizon offices, attended technical workshops and listened to speakers from the F.B.I. and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ninety percent of the program’s participants were from historically underrepresented groups, and 60 percent were first-generation college students, according to The Washington Center. The participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 43.

Online internships can be more accessible than in-person programs. Faris Nabeel, a University of Arkansas graduate, participated in one for eight weeks. He credits the internship for helping him get into a master’s degree program in cybersecurity and land his current job as a security operations center analyst. Credit: Image provided by Faris Nabeel

“This met my needs,” Faris Nabeel, 26, said. Nabeel, who was the first in his family to go to college, was working overnight shifts as a behavioral health associate while also studying full-time at the University of Arkansas. The program was his first opportunity to participate in a professional internship. It was remote, roughly 10 hours a week for eight weeks, and consisted of researching and helping plan an event in the U.S. Virgin Islands to increase awareness about cybersecurity. He earned a $500 stipend.

Nabeel credited the internship for helping him build new skills, get into a master’s degree program in cybersecurity and land his current job as a security operations center analyst.

But, he said, “If it was in person, I probably would have enjoyed it more,” noting that the time difference with his East Coast employer, remote communication and online distractions made the job harder. And if he had been employed as a full-time, salaried intern, he said, he could have focused exclusively on that experience and learned more.

While groups like The Washington Center have been around for decades, several new internship organizations have sprung up in recent years, offering programs that broaden access.

U.K.-based Virtual Internships was established in 2018 with the goal of removing barriers to internship participation, especially abroad, co-founder Ed Holroyd Pearce said. The program offers fully remote internships that last one to four months, require a commitment of 10, 20 or 30 hours per week, and have start dates throughout the year. It also includes access to an online curriculum in professional skills development.

The company, whose biggest market is now the U.S., according to Holroyd Pearce, partners with universities, colleges and governments, which typically fund the program or grant academic credit — often to students who face barriers to getting work experience.

Related: What’s lost, gained with online internships

Virtual Internships partners with a Canadian organization funded by the government, for example, on a program that trains and re-skills workers who are changing or transitioning careers. And the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, also working with the company, identifies first-year students with the least work experience and helps place them in internships to give them a boost as they apply for summer positions during their sophomore and junior years.

Virtual Internships’ survey data shows that supervisors’ perceptions of the interns’ abilities on core career-readiness skills like communication, critical thinking and teamwork increased substantially during the internships. About a quarter of interns receive offers to extend or get hired full time, Holroyd Pearce said.

Micro-internships like Nabeel’s are another relatively new option. Chicago-based Parker Dewey, which launched in 2016, facilitates short-term contract projects, such as blogging, social media or data cleanup, that typically are done remotely, require 10 to 40 hours of work total and pay $20 to $25 per hour.

Students provide answers to one or more short-answer questions when they apply — and employers, whom Parker Dewey doesn’t allow to filter applicants by GPA or major, weigh those answers more heavily than the students’ resumes or pedigrees, chief executive Jeffrey Moss said.

“Essentially what we’ve done is lowered the stakes for both students and employers,” Moss said. “The employer can ‘take a chance’ on someone who came from a different background, not a finance major with a 3.7 GPA.”

That, in turn, Moss said, creates an opportunity for the student, who might land a summer internship or full-time role as a result, and it drives behavior change at the employer company, which now has access to and can recruit from a more diverse student pool.

More than 80 percent of students selected for Parker Dewey’s micro-internships come from populations that are underrepresented in the workforce, including first-generation, Pell-eligible, adult-learner, veteran and racial or ethnic minority students, Moss said.

Still, Moss added, micro-internships are “a feeder and a complement” to summer internships — not a replacement.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: An internship helped catapult me from homelessness to a full-time job

In 2022, City College in New York announced a new partnership with Braven, a national nonprofit organization founded in 2013 with the goal of promoting economic mobility by getting students from underrepresented groups into a “strong first job” or graduate school after college.

Braven runs a three-credit career development course inside its partner schools, which in addition to City College include Lehman College in the Bronx; Rutgers University-Newark; Spelman College, in Atlanta; and San Jose State University, among others.

In the semester-long course, volunteers from employer partners coach and mentor a small cohort of students on career skills, including leadership, problem-solving and communication. Students must apply for internships, ideally completing two in person and for pay before they graduate.

“We are very clear about what a high-quality internship looks like, and you need to get paid,” founder and chief executive Aimée Eubanks Davis said.

After the course, students continue to receive mentoring, invitations to network, listings for jobs and internships and guidance to help them apply. Over two and a half years, Braven follows its students to see if they are on track for their postgraduate goals — and intervenes if they’re not.

The model appears to be working. In 2023, 60 percent of Braven “fellows” landed in quality jobs or graduate schools within six months of graduation, compared to 43 percent of their peers nationally, according to the organization.

Kahn, of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, said that third-party internship providers and programs provide a crucial bridge between students and employers, offering experience and networking that otherwise might not be available to historically underrepresented students.

But ultimately, he said, the best and most sustainable solution is for employers to offer more paid internships — as many large companies already do.

“Interns provide valuable insights, creativity and skills on real projects that organizations can monetize,” he wrote in an email.

Without such pay, many students will continue to have limited options for participating in internships.

Alexandra Sandoval Flores, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, says that experiencing a summer internship at a legal firm in Spain “changed my life,” opening her eyes to new career possibilities. Credit: Image provided by Alexandra Sandoval Flores

Alexandra Sandoval Flores, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, saved money from three jobs and took out loans to pay for her internship at a legal firm in Spain last summer. The experience “changed my life,” she said, opening her eyes to new career possibilities as well as a new culture.

But she could only afford to go for four weeks and wished she had been able to stay longer.

“Coming from someone who is an immigrant, a minority, Hispanic, Latina, it’s very heartbreaking to know that a lot of us deserve these opportunities and we can’t get them,” Sandoval Flores said. “We know we have the qualities for them, and the only thing holding us back is the financial side.”

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