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To some, that may seem like a tall order, or perhaps evidence of the relentless push toward pre-professionalism at elite institutions like USC. For me, it merely confirmed a trend that I’d been observing over the previous months, as I prepared for the new leadership position that I now hold as associate dean of professional programs at the University of Texas at Austin. Institutions of higher learning across the country — from small private liberal-arts colleges to large public and regional universities, from historically Black institutions to the Ivy League — are placing greater emphasis on internships than ever before. Widely viewed as the gateway to a successful career, or in some cases a means of dipping your toes in the water before taking the plunge, internships are now an established requirement at many institutions, and a centerpiece of curricular development and reform.
Although not entirely new, this trend toward practical experience — or “experiential learning,” as we’ve come to call it in academe — does signal a sea change. We are now witnessing more partnerships being formed between industry and higher education, more pipelines being cultivated, and a rising expectation among employers that students will have a certain amount of real-world experience by the time they apply for full-time employment. A university’s success at internship placement, as The New York Times financial columnist Ron Lieber suggests in his book The Price You Pay for College (2021), has become one of the key metrics by which to judge the worth of a college investment. In the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, there is now a “Co-ops/Internships” category, with Northeastern and Drexel Universities (both early pioneers of experiential learning) at the top of the heap.
In August 2023, Forbes ran a piece highlighting the increased importance of the internship for today’s college students. Its author, Kayla Missman, presents the rationale for the recent uptick under four slogan-like banners: “Gain Work Experience,” “Develop Your Skills,” “Start Building a Professional Network,” and “Find Job Opportunities.” Among the primary data she examines is a 2022 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which indicates that as many as 50 percent to 60 percent of interns go on to receive full-time job offers from the companies where they had an internship. That same poll, surveying four-year college students, shows that paid interns were more than twice as likely to receive job offers than students without any internship experience.
A university’s success at internship placement has become one of the key metrics by which to judge the worth of a college investment.
Which brings us to the thorny issue of paid versus unpaid internships. Critics have long pointed out that unpaid internships are only feasible for students with enough financial security to be able to afford to work for free. But the equity problems run even deeper. The NACE data used in the Forbes article reveals that women and minorities are less likely to land paid internships than white male students. Similarly, Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander students do not take advantage of internship opportunities at the same rate as white students; such opportunities remain a privilege that not all can afford. “Internships aren’t just about access to opportunity for careers,” says R.J. Holmes-Leopold, director of Carleton College’s career center. “It’s also about access to social mobility.”
To remedy the situation, institutions like Bowie State University, an HBCU in Maryland with a highly regarded computer-science program, have begun to develop their own pipelines to tech companies and government agencies in a move to increase the chances of internship placement and future employment for their students. The initial results of these and other efforts to democratize internships have been encouraging, with many students from HBCUs securing job offers from desirable and previously inaccessible companies.
By and large, college students who participate in internship programs appear to be pleased with the impact such programs have on their future. A 2022 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse revealed that a sizable majority of students recognized value in their internship experience. While the survey pointed at some of the same inequities unearthed in the 2022 NACE survey, close to two-thirds of the students polled agreed that professional internships and experiential learning offered them an advantage when it came to securing future employment. They were also overwhelmingly favorable in crediting their colleges for support and guidance toward achieving their internship and career goals. Internships, then, have never been more popular — at least among students.
As Perlin notes (in his case, not disapprovingly), internships are often satirized in popular culture. “This country was built by unpaid interns,” quips comedian Stephen Colbert in one of the book’s epigraphs. “And in exchange, I assume they got college credit.” Some may recall a surly Bill Murray as the title character in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), demanding that one of the lowly, browbeaten interns aboard his ship fix him a Campari cocktail.
Attitudes toward internships among faculty members, and in the intellectual class generally, have tended to be sharply negative, especially on the left.
Intern Nation, which received wide and largely positive review coverage, was published at a distinct cultural moment, when throngs of young Occupy Wall Street protesters were gathering in Zuccotti Park, armed with posters and picket signs; one of the most popular slogans was “Screw Your Unpaid Internships.” The temperature has cooled considerably since then, but the battle for equal access and fair wages, a cornerstone of Perlin’s polemic against internships, is clearly far from over. Nor have internships disappeared; quite the reverse, as we’ve already seen. So, in the intervening decade and change, have Perlin’s arguments been addressed, or simply ignored?
Though Intern Nation was propelled by the radical energy of Occupy, Perlin himself was open to accepting a compromise. “Cooperative education,” he writes, “in which students alternate between tightly integrated classroom time and paid work experience, represents a humane and pragmatic model.” Colleges would do well to heed these words. At the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach, we have structured our two internship-based programs, in Los Angeles and New York City, around such a model. Students pursue their internships during the day, and in the evening they take academic classes designed to round out their professional experience. While not all are able to land paid internships, we have increasingly made it our mission to provide stipends and scholarships to those in need.
Over the summer months, I supervised a student intern — paid, I should add — who performed a comparative analysis of current internship-based programs offered by other colleges in the United States, as well as conducting exit interviews with the summer cohort of Texas students in New York. Among the key takeaways of this research was that an overwhelming majority of students had positive experiences in the different kinds of hands-on, practice-based learning across a range of diverse industries. As many 75 percent reported having had a mentor figure who enhanced that experience, and that same high percentage praised the classes taken in conjunction with their internships.
Admittedly, at this fraught moment in higher education, when entire programs and departments are at the risk of getting the snip from short-sighted, often ideologically driven legislators, I harbor some lingering concerns about overcorrection. Are we putting an unduly high premium on the paths that ensure the greatest career success, and does this diminish the intrinsic value of a well-rounded liberal-arts education? My own take on the matter is that the two are not mutually exclusive; that is, the best and most meaningful preparation for success after graduation is one that balances a broad and multidisciplinary education with a narrower focus on a particular field or industry. The two can and should coexist productively, complementing each other.
While I’m generally optimistic about the future of internships, there remain real challenges ahead around equity, access, and levels of support. “Someday a brave college or university will ban employers who refuse to pay their interns,” remarks Ron Lieber in The Price You Pay for College. Perhaps that day has come. Certainly, internships are not going away — nor should they, given the high levels of satisfaction expressed by students about their intern experiences. But we owe it to current and future generations to remove the remaining barriers to entry and make interning an experience every student who wants it can have.