The doors of opportunity are closed for many students: barriers to internship participation

Author: Javier Rodriguez S., Zi Chen

Internships are widely considered positive experiences. Across disciplines, studies suggest that taking part in an internship increases students’ chances at identifying a career path that’s appropriate for them, getting a job, and even receiving higher pay when they are hired. All of this because internships, arguably, expand students’ professional networks; allow them to experience, first-hand, what a job in a given industry looks like; apply their knowledge in the real world; and pick up skills and information, outside the classroom, that make them better-equipped, more desirable job candidates. Indeed, advocates call for educators and employers to provide undergraduate students with more opportunities to participate in internships before they graduate.

Internships, however, are not available to everyone. Different types of barriers prevent students from participating in them. First, there are financial barriers. With considerable debt and the need to pay for college-related expenses, not every student can afford to take an unpaid job as an intern. Few can cover the costs of relocating and living in a different city to pursue an internship; and, many times, students are responsible for caring and providing for others (children, older relatives), which requires them to maintain paid employment while pursuing their college education. Those who can afford to do unpaid or underpaid work are the ones who have the means in the form of substantial support from family or other sources.

Second, many students lack the personal connections required to secure an internship position. Even worse, some students do not even know that internship programs exist and are available to them, do not know how to find them, or see them as opportunities beyond their reach. Such is the case of students who lack the specific, informal knowledge about certain aspects of the professional world. This knowledge is often acquired informally, and passed on to students by family, friends and mentors. First-generation students who are new to higher education are often at a disadvantage when it comes to finding and taking advantage of people, information and resources. This type of barriers is different than the financial kind, and often have to do with the social and cultural background of students.

Finally, students face institutional barriers. In many cases their academic programs impose heavy course loads on them, which leaves them with very little time to do anything else outside school and paid work. In other cases, their schools do not promote their participation in internships, lack the resources to help them connect with potential employers, or do not accommodate the needs of those who want to pursue an internship in tandem with their academic program. In sum, students who want to take internships often face financial, socio-cultural, and institutional barriers.

While what we know about these barriers comes from anecdotal evidence and studies of specific cases, a mixed-methods study by the Center for Research on College & Workforce Transition aims to provide a comprehensive view. We set out to find which specific barriers students experience and how these are related to the characteristics of students themselves. We also examined which kinds of barriers frequently go together.

We found that students’ accounts of what prevents them from taking internships mostly center around financial constraints. In many cases, students cannot take internship positions because they need to work at their current paid jobs, and the compensation offered to them as interns (if any) does not match their current salaries. As one working student explained: “My biggest struggle is most of [the internships I’ve found] are unpaid. I am 26, getting married in a year… not getting paid for several months is just not something I can afford to do right now. I’m currently working a sad minimum wage job but it’s at an animal shelter. Money is unfortunately an important motivator in what I’m looking for in an internship, and very few are paid.”

The flip side of this picture is that students who don’t work are less likely to report insufficient pay as an important barrier for them. Putting these two findings together, students who need to maintain paid employment are less likely to take internship opportunities than students who have access to more financial resources and for whom compensation may not be an issue. Indeed, in our qualitative inquiry, several students reported that they were able to pursue unpaid internships because their family was able to provide additional resources to offset the financial costs of unpaid work (gifts or loans from parents, use of a family vehicle, room and board provided by relatives who live near the internship site).

Students’ access to economic resources not only allows them to afford taking an internship job that comes with low or no remuneration. Our results also show that students with parents that are better-off financially have an easier time finding opportunities to intern, and it is not hard to imagine that greater financial capital comes with more access to people, resources and opportunities to secure intern jobs.

As a separate contribution, we argue that barriers should be thought of in the plural as opposed to single obstacles. We found that barriers tend to go with one another following certain patterns. The most common case is that of students who prioritize their paid job and have little additional time outside of school and work. Unsurprisingly, these students mention that they cannot find time in their schedule to devote to an internship. Additionally, first-generation and low-income students often need to work to pay for college and lack the connections to land a good internship position. Students with no prior experience feel unprepared to pursue an internship opportunity and decide to not even try. In this way, different barriers add up and, ultimately, prevent students from participating.

While internships are widely promoted as vehicles for career advancement and socioeconomic mobility, the findings of our study show that internships as opportunities are not accessible to everyone because, crucially, they themselves represent a substantial cost that not all students can afford. In this way, although internships are, in principle, experiences that help students advance and fair better after graduation; in practice, in many cases, they may be mechanisms that reproduce inequality among college students in that they only improve the career prospects of the already better off students who can afford to participate in them.

Javier Rodriguez S., is a Project Assistant of CCWT, focusing on inequality and education. Dr. Zi Chen is a vocational psychologist and quantitative researcher of CCWT.