Sunday, October 27, 2013


Intern Scholarships

Internships are wonderful and awful.  They’re wonderful in giving experience to students who benefit from it, whether by getting a foot in the door or, as happened in my case, learning what they don’t want to do.  (My internship spared the world from yet another lawyer.  That strikes me as an unalloyed good.)  And they’re awful in that they’ve become de facto class barriers; to the extent that they’re both unpaid and required, they serve to screen out students who can’t afford to work for free.  That hardly seems fair.

Internships are particularly problematic at the community college level.  That’s because in addition to the usual issues, four-year colleges often refuse to take internship credits in transfer.  They prefer to honor only their own.  That’s not universally true, but it’s common enough to be a real issue.  

And that’s a shame, because the right internship at the right time can be a great learning experience.  To the extent that they can compensate for missing social capital, in the form of familiarity with various professions, they’re probably much more important for community college students specifically.  They can replace idealized images of how a profession works with a warts-and-all daily reality.  As a complement to classroom instruction, that’s invaluable.

But how to make internships affordable to students who need Pell grants just to attend school?

I’m thinking that it may be time to make a much more focused and intentional push for intern scholarships.  

That was how I was able to do my own internship, all those years ago.  Some beneficent donor gave money that paid for stipends for students to do otherwise-unpaid summer internships.  The stipend had a twofold benefit: it made it financially possible for me to do the internship, and it made me a more attractive candidate for it.  Knowing that I “came with money” reassured the folks in charge that I would be likely to show up and put forward a good effort, which, in fact, I did.  

The beauty of the scholarship was that it wasn’t attached to any given placement.  It was portable.  The student had to find something, and I’m sure there were criteria, but it could go where the student wanted to go (and could find a spot).  It leveled the playing field by making it affordable to work “for free,” since the intern got paid, but not by the employer.

This was back in the late 80’s.  Now, internship experience is far more important for students than it was then, but for some reason, the intern scholarship model hasn’t really caught on.

Scholarships are usually earmarked for degree study, which makes perfect sense.  But I could see a well-designed intern scholarship making an enormous, positive difference for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to take those positions.  

Does anyone out there know of a reason that the intern scholarship model couldn’t work?  Is there some technicality in the law that makes it unwieldy?  Or is it low-hanging fruit, just waiting to be picked?

I'm not certain this is the best solution. So many companies view interns as free labor, and these interns are generally treated really poorly. Just this month a judge ruled that interns couldn't file sexual harassment suits against employers because they're not employees.

Instead, why don't we simply push for tighter rules against companies trying to get away with not paying interns? Otherwise, intern scholarships (while a win for interns) may become just another way for them to take advantage.

I still think the idea is a good one, especially for the reasons you listed for community colleges. But maybe intern scholarships should be reserved for non-profit organizations who legitimately can't afford interns.
For-profit organizations can't afford interns either. They bring more supervisory costs than they do benefits, especially when the interns are "free."

Companies are wringing the flab out of their personnel ranks for many competitive reasons. Although unpaid internships apparently may continue in the entertainment field.
It's too bad they can't use work-study money this way. It would suck for the campus but think about how your student workers would prosper if they could use work study money to get a job in a business that would help them get work after graduation. Beats filing papers in the department office hands down.
So, rich schools do this, so I don't think there's a regulation against it. They are typically thematic. My institution has a good 40 stipend fellowships for public service (govt or non-profit), which are highly competitive. There is also one for students who find a newspaper internship from the Communication dept, and one for internships in Latin America from the LatAm Center. I suspect that these may be attractive to donors--students often write thank you letters, and I think the public service ones combine multiple named fellowships in the same application process.

Possibly a more relevant model--the city govt of SF recently did a program where local manufacturers could apply for money to pay an intern who was low-income. Well, I thought it was the city, but maybe not: A CC could be a great partner with a program like that, and it could make a good grant application.
Our regional public does this. The scholarships are not large, but they appear to be a difference maker for some of our students who would not otherwise seek an internship. So far, most of them are using the scholarships to help pay for summer internships. We started something similar to encourage low and moderate income students to seriously consider study-abroad programs, too.
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As a graduate student in psychometrics, there were many summer internship projects that came with a stipend from the sponsoring company. They were (mostly) for-profit institutions, and they got real work from (and for) the interns. Conference presentations, papers, publications, and most importantly, real-world experience were all part of the deal -- for the interns and for the employees that took on an intern. I don't know how one can grow such a model into other industries, much less down to the undergraduate level. For a start, though, people would need to stop looking at students as free labor. Period.
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