college internships

Students need internships, but internships need disrupting


Feb 22, 2024

Strada and Burning Glass Institute’s new Talent Disrupted report made headlines this week conveying the indisputable crisis of underemployment that an astounding half of college graduates face. 

The report also confirmed what many in the field have long argued: internships are a critical ingredient in the college ROI equation. In fact, researchers found that graduates who had just one internship were far less likely to be underemployed. The authors summarize: “Controlling for factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, and institutional characteristics, the odds of underemployment for graduates who had at least one internship are 48.5 percent lower than those who had no internships, and the benefits associated with completing an internship are relatively strong across degree fields.”

At first blush, their finding generates an obvious recommendation: let’s ensure more college students partake in more internships. The paper’s authors follow suit, imploring policymakers and colleges to “enable every college student to access at least one paid internship” as their top recommendation.

That sounds great in theory. But in reality, internships are hard to scale. They’re especially hard to scale with quality. And they’re nearly impossible to scale with reliable quality, in equitable ways, if the field has yet to agree on what quality actually is. 

With limited insights into what exactly internships signal to which employers (and whether the scarcity of internships contributes to the premium they appear to command in the labor market), there are at least two risks if colleges rush to scale internships. First, internships could become the new black box, akin to a degree, that are imperfect proxies for real skills, competence, or potential. Second, colleges could over-rotate on trying to offer more internships as a singular and expensive form of work-integrated learning when, in fact, there’s a ton of runway–and need–for innovation in the space. 

With those challenges in mind, here are three ways to tackle internship gaps with a keener eye on quality and a more innovative approach to scale:

1. Get clearer on desired outcomes

Before we rush to scale them, the field needs to sharpen thinking on what aspects of internships—or any other work-integrated learning experience, for that matter—are most valuable, and to whom. The answer is far from tidy and likely varies widely by industry, employer, and individual. To be more specific, these outcomes of interest could include things like:

  • Exposure to industries, particular jobs, and particular companies not otherwise on students’ radars (and for companies, exposure to students not otherwise on their radars)
  • Access to job networks and connections in particular industries and companies otherwise out of reach (for advice and/or referrals)
  • Work experience (short or long), regardless of specific skills and networks gained (for credit or pay)
  • Validated skill development, assessed through standardized measures not specific to an employer
  • Employer-specific validated skill development, assessed in employer-specific or employer-approved ways

That’s just a quick sample of the sorts of discrete outcomes that research suggests expand students’ work prospects. A given internship experience could, of course, accomplish multiple outcomes or perform particularly well on one. However, each of these outcomes amounts to particular links in the complex value chain connecting learning and work.  

Through this outcomes-oriented lens, work experiences that appear similar in terms of form might actually perform drastically different functions. For example, within “micro-internship and externship” offerings on the market today, some companies, like Paragon One, offer a full-stack experience to students and companies, including overseeing and assessing students on companies’ behalf. Others, like Parker Dewey, don’t validate students’ skills or learning and instead act as a marketplace where students and employers can find one another for short, gig projects across a wide array of industries. In other words, two offerings in the same general category are best suited to very different functions. 

2. Pursue both sustaining and disruptive innovations

Defining quality is not just an exercise in parsing the benefits of internships, but also in supporting effective innovation in the field. For many colleges, increasing access to internships will amount to a sustaining innovation strategy, aimed at expanding offerings already in place. But internships—like so many pricey and scarce experiential learning opportunities—are primed for disruption. 

Disruptive innovations make products and services that are expensive and out of reach fundamentally more accessible. 

As I’ve written in the past, models like DVX’s project consults, and Parker Dewey’s micro-internships, are promising examples of shorter, sprint work experiences that offer more flexibility and lower opportunity costs than full-stack internships. 

That’s not to say that full-stack internships should disappear, but rather that other offerings that are lower-cost and easier to scale could also play an enormous role in de-risking career exploration, expanding access to diverse experiences, and continuing to build skills—all support students’ pathways to fruitful careers.

In other words, work-integrated learning opportunities (like everything else in education) shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. It’s clear that internships are a critical lever in getting the most out of a college degree, so sustaining innovations that improve access and quality will be critical. But simply scaling internships, without exploring a range of more disruptive approaches, risks lowest-common-denominator, highest-cost thinking. Depending on students’ career clarity and the industry they are hoping to break into, disruptive innovations can pave the way to more affordable and flexible offerings. And with enough patient capital, those models could scale over time to accomplish many of the outcomes internships themselves do. 

By pairing sustaining and disruptive approaches, colleges will be better poised to offer a portfolio of work experiences that align with students’ unique goals, rather than a lockstep mandate. 

3. To rightsize costs, measure outcomes, not outputs, among third-party providers

Unpacking the variety of outcomes and dosages across the work-integrated learning spectrum can help colleges create more effective and equitable pathways to employment. But it can also ensure that scaling work-integrated learning doesn’t break the bank. 

It’s no mystery that we desperately need to bend the cost curve in higher ed. Scaling more work-integrated learning opportunities won’t be cheap. A sharper eye on outcomes can, over time, bring discipline and efficiencies to the market. 

This is especially critical as third-party tools and services peddle solutions to well-intentioned institutions: making discrete outcomes more transparent to colleges could help avoid an arms race for expensive, integrated solutions attempting to solve any and all of the problems higher education and employers face. Outcomes data will reveal where more modular, affordable solutions could and should arise.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone saying that learning and work aren’t desperately in need of tighter integration. But simply trying to scale internships, without interrogating their core function, isn’t the answer. 

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"