Access and Barriers to internships for college students

Internship participation is a topic of increasing importance to researchers, practitioners, and policy makers involved in postsecondary education. Data from the Higher Education Research Institute for Undergraduates between 1994 to 2006 showed that the percentage of students who participated in internships has increased from approximately 30 percent to 43 percent (Routon & Walker, 2018). More recently in 2017, the National Association of College and Employers student survey found that 61 percent of graduating seniors took part in an internship or co-op experiences during college (NACE, 2017). Although the importance of internships has been highlighted and participation rate has been growing, there are concerns about the problem of access, especially for low-income and/or first-generation college students who may be unable to engage in an internship given their socio-economic status as well as the structure of internship programs themselves.

What are some of the barriers that prevent students from participating in an internship? The answer to this question is critical but little empirical evidence exists on this topic. For the last six months, our Center has worked to shed some light on this important issue. We gathered data from three institutions about their students’ internship participation, structural features of internship programs, and students’ perspectives about their experiences of participating (or not) in an internship program. The three institutions we studied include: a comprehensive Predominately White Institution (PWI), a technical college, a Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU); two in southern Wisconsin, one in South Carolina.

First, our data shows that the HBCU had the highest internship participation rate (43%), followed by the technical college (27%) and the comprehensive PWI (26%). Next, we found that two program features may have contributed to the different participation rates: 1) internships being paid or unpaid; 2) internship being required or not required. The following charts show the internship participation rates by compensation level and whether they were required in order to graduate across the three institutions. The HBCU has relatively higher rates of paid internships and required internships; in contrast, the comprehensive PWI has relatively lower rates.

Although internships are required for some programs such as business and STEM majors, the availability of internships across the disciplines and for campuses in rural areas is a major concern. Students in some majors (e.g., social science, language) and students located in small towns had limited internship opportunities. They expressed frustration with instructors for putting pressure to have an internship without needed support to obtain a placement, and with employers for requiring experience from new hires but not being willing to “give us a chance.” for example, a student from the HBCU stated “Because I feel like… at [this school] they put a lot of pressure on us to get internships. But they are so hard to get so, it’s very frustrating and annoying at times. I… t’s just like, okay you’re telling us we need the experience but they [employers] are not even willing to give us a chance.”

Also, according to our focus group with students, those with financial concerns preferred paid internships and highlighted financial stability as one of the main barriers. Additionally, for students who have a job or more than one job off campus, it was difficult for them to find internships that paid enough for them to consider leaving their current paid jobs. For example, a student from the PWI stated, “And, honestly, my biggest struggle is most of them are unpaid. And I am 26, I am getting married in like a year… I am trying to do adult things and not getting paid for several months is just not something I really think I can afford to do right now.

Our data also show that students’ participation in internships correlates with their student’s enrollment status. The bar chart below shows that full-time students were more likely to participate in an internship compared with part-time students (33% vs. 21%). Research has also indicated that students from lower household income levels are more likely to enroll in school part-time (Walpole, 2003). Consequently, these findings illustrate how financial issues may be a barrier for students’ participation in internships in a variety of ways.

Students also reported frustrations with the relevance and fit of their internships to their future career goals. Many students expressed interest in finding an internship that was challenging, aligned with their values, and beneficial to their future career. For example, a student from the technical college stated, “I just, I want to find something other than sitting at the reception desk saying ‘hi,’ checking them in, because that’s, I mean if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do. But I have the drive and desire to offer more.” One unexpected finding from our study was that students who had more than one job were more likely to participate in an internship. That may be because they tried to find a good fit between internship experiences and future career, so doing an internship with a good fit would allow them to obtain experiences in their intended field. Unfortunately, insufficient pay and limited access may keep them continue to work in irrelevant jobs.

Lastly, students who had not taken an internship in the past 12 months were asked, “Were you interested in an internship?”  Sixty four percent (of 797 across the three campuses) indicated that they had been interested in but did not or could not. Then, we asked the follow-up question why they had not been able to pursue an internship. Among the 509 students who had no internship experience but expressed interests, the following chart shows the reasons behind.

The barriers identified above may provide some insight into the reasons that prevented students from engaging in an internship. However, more is needed to understand what hinders these students from pursuing internships. It is our responsibility as researchers, educators, employers, and policy makers to have a better understanding of the barriers to participation in internship programs as more colleges and universities encourage or even require these experiences as part of students’ college experience.


  1. National Association of College and Employers (2017). The Class of 2017 Student Survey Report: Results from NACE’s annual survey of college students. Retrieved from
  2. Routon, P. W., & Walker, J. K. (2018). College Internships, Tenure Gaps, and Student Outcomes: A Multiple-Treatment Matching Approach.
  3. Walpole, M. (2003). Socioeconomic status and college: How SES affects college experiences and outcomes. The review of higher education27(1), 45-73.

Dr. Zi Chen is a vocational psychologist and researcher of CCWT. Pa Her is a graduate Research Assistant at CCWT.