Funding Paid Internships for Students is Catching On. But What Approaches Work?

Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation has dedicated its higher education philanthropy work not only to increasing college readiness and access, but also to ensuring that the right supports are in place for enrolled college students. The latter are necessary so that low-income and first-generation college students increase their chances of graduating and being prepared for the job market.

Internship experience while in college is one of the best ways to improve a college student's employment prospects after graduation. Unfortunately, many internships are unpaid, putting low-income college students at a disadvantage. Recognizing the value of internship experience, Great Lakes has funded programs to create more paid internships, so that the playing field can be level for students with financial need.

Other funders have also moved into this space lately, amid a growing national debate about how to address inequality. For example, we've reported on how the Yawkey Foundations put up $10 million to underwrite paid internships through Boston University that place sophomores and juniors at local nonprofits. And we've also written about a partnership between Young Invincibles, a research and advocacy group, and the Cognosante Foundation, to provide paid internships in Washington, D.C., primarily for first-generation college students. 

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Great Lakes began its efforts in this area with a pilot program in 2013, before expanding into a $5.2 million effort. The program's goal was to create more than 2,000 paid internships. Colleges in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin collaborated with area companies on this internship program. This year, the funder released a program report, which details best practices for colleges and universities that may be interested in starting similar programs to create paid internships.

For the colleges themselves, Great Lakes advises spending at least one semester in the planning and preparation of the program. During this time, schools can contact area businesses, arrange positions, and interview candidates for participation in the internship programs. The funder also advises that the school should foster collaboration across departments, involving such offices at Student Affairs, Financial Aid, and others, but having a career services office manage the program.

To engage companies in the program, Great Lakes underscores the importance of knowing what companies are looking for in employees in order to match them with qualified interns. Schools also should work with businesses to ensure competitive wages for interns. In addition, schools can lighten the administrative load for businesses by handling the payroll process for interns.

Finally, to attract students, Great Lakes advises colleges to ensure that internships created through the program offer flexible schedules to accommodate school and family obligations, and offer the right number of work hours. The funder found that about 15 hours a week was the sweet spot for most internships. Additional suggestions include covering commuting costs for interns and preparing student interns for success through workshops that focus on resume preparation and interview techniques.

The benefits of internship experience during college are clear. Great Lakes found that 65 percent of students with paid internships were offered full-time jobs after graduation, more than double the rate for students without internship experience. Further, internship experience goes a long way toward keeping disadvantaged students in school until graduation. The funder found that 97 percent of the students in the paid internship programs it supported went on to re-enroll in school or graduate.

College readiness is only part of the challenge. There is plenty of work to keep first-generation and disadvantaged students in school and to help them persist to graduation. The work supported by Great Lakes demonstrates that internships are a part of the solution.