Closing the Doors of Opportunity: How Financial, Sociocultural, and Institutional Barriers Intersect to Inhibit Participation in College Internships

WCER Working Paper No. 2019-8

Matthew T. Hora, Matthew Wolfgram, and Zi Chen

December 2019, 37 pp.

ABSTRACT: Internships are widely perceived as a “high-impact practice” that opens the doors of opportunity for college students, yet little is known about obstacles to participation. Instead, educators and employers too often view participation as unproblematic, with many postsecondary institutions beginning to mandate internships for graduation in many colleges and universities. This study reports findings from surveys (n = 1,549) and focus groups (n= 100) with students at five diverse postsecondary institutions that include a community college, a Historically Black College and University, and three comprehensive universities. Results indicate that 64% of students who did not take internships had in fact wanted to, but could not due to intersecting obstacles that include the need to work at a full- or part-time job, heavy course loads, and a lack of opportunities in their disciplines. First-generation students were more likely to report needing to work, Arts & Humanities students were more likely to report insufficient pay and heavy course loads, and full-time students were least likely to report insufficient pay. Given the financial, structural, and even spatial forces that inhibit the ability of many college students to pursue and then complete an internship, we argue that postsecondary institutions should not mandate or advocate for internships until and unless they address these obstacles to internship participation. Ultimately, colleges and universities must work to ensure that internships do not reproduce privilege and exacerbate inequality.

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keywords: internships, higher education, career readiness, workforce development, experiential learning, equity, social mobility, inequality, employer needs, Wisconsin, South Carolina, historically black college or university, HCBU