Opening Doors: This Funder Wants to Close the Internship Gap

With all the emphasis placed by educational organizations and funders on college and career readiness, a college degree is obviously not the most important end product; rather, it is a rewarding career that enables a recent graduate to succeed and capitalize upon the value of a college education. Today's college graduates need all the help they can get to access the kinds of jobs that will enable them to succeed in careers and communities.

The last major recession ended more than five years ago, and despite the ensuing recovery, college graduates still face rough job prospects in many cases. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that unemployment among young college graduates stood at 7.2 percent in 2015, higher than in 2007, when the rate was only 5.5 percent. For first-generation college students and students from low-income families, the challenges of networking and building careers are even greater, since they often lack the social capital of more affluent college grads.

Funders recognize the barriers faced by recent college graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a few of them are zeroing in on internships as one way to give these kids a leg up. As everyone knows, internships are a key route for young people advance their careers by getting a foot in the door of specific industries or organizations. Affluent young people aren't just more likely to have the connections needed to land such positions, they can afford to take interships that pay little or no money. That isn't an option for those with urgent financial needs. 

Over the past year, we've written about a few efforts by by funders to close this opportunity gap, backing programs and initiatives designed to connect disadvantaged young people with internships and other types of support to help them complete college and boost their employability.


One of the latest gifts in this area is a major new pledge from Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty. We've written about this funder in the past, and continue to be impressed with its grantmaking, which typically follows an approach of starting small and looking for evidence of success before expanding a program.

Take, for example, this new initiative. Great Lakes has pledged $12 million to fund thousands of new internships — as in paid ones — for college juniors and seniors who are struggling to make ends meet while finishing their studies. The funder's internship program started as a pilot at 19 Wisconsin colleges, which cost $2.5 million, in 2013–2014. Great Lakes then expanded the program, providing an additional $5.2 million in grants for 40 colleges in four states in 2014–2015. Students participated in internships that were related to their fields of study, and 98 percent either graduated or continued their studies the following semester.

Through this latest expansion, 33 colleges and universities in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin received funds to create paid internships for juniors and seniors. The grant funding period extends through 2018, but the funder is looking ahead. Recipient colleges have to put some skin in the game, matching the grant funds to ensure sustainability of the internship programs. Recipient schools have already begun collaborating with area employers and nonprofit organizations to develop new paid internship programs. Great Lakes anticipates that this latest expansion of its internship program will create 7,000 new internships in the three-year funding period.