Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Internship Condundrum

(That sounds like a spy novel, doesn’t it?)

From listening to employers, you’d think that community colleges would be hotbeds of internships.  Since employers frequently want some sort of work experience, and community colleges have been tasked with a focus on workforce development, it would seem to make sense that community colleges would be epicenters for internships.

But it isn’t that simple.

I’m the first to agree that internships can provide real value for students.  I had one during the summer between my junior and senior years of college, when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and when I discovered that I didn’t.  At age twenty, that was valuable information to have, and I don’t know how else I would have discovered it.  Done right, internships can provide three-dimensional views of the reality of workplaces, and can help students decide whether a given setting makes sense for them.  And it’s not at all unusual for employers to treat internships as extended auditions, hiring the interns who make the best impressions.  That makes obvious sense, and provides an incentive on both sides for taking the opportunity seriously.

Having said that, though, the issues from an institutional perspective are twofold.

First, most internships are unpaid.  (I was lucky; mine came with a stipend.)  For many community college students, that’s a deal-breaker.  They’re working their way through school, and they can’t afford to forego paid employment to work someplace else for free.  It’s easy to argue that a short-term sacrifice is worth the long-term gain, but that argument is easier to make when your basic needs are met.  When the short-term sacrifice involves the basic needs, it’s a tough sell.  You can’t eat prestige, and your kids certainly can’t.

Unfortunately, that can put many community college students at a competitive disadvantage in the subsequent job search, since they’ll be competing with people who could afford to work for free in a career-relevant field.  

Second, very few four-year colleges take internship credits in transfer.  They generally prefer that internships be done no earlier than the junior year.  I’ve never actually heard a rationale for that.  If I had to guess, I suppose they’d say something about wanting to send out people who are well-prepared.  But I think that gives short shrift to the “discovery” function of internships -- better to find out earlier than later if a field just isn’t for you -- and it actively discourages community colleges from competing with them.  (From their perspective, that may be a feature, rather than a bug.)  In a four-year context, you can at least offer a student academic credit, even if you can’t offer pay.  (Put differently, you can charge them for working.)  For a student starting out at a community college and intending to transfer, being told that the internship credits they worked for and paid for won’t transfer is a powerful disincentive.  

To my mind, this obstacle doesn’t have to exist.  Four-year colleges could agree to accept up to x internship credits in transfer if they wanted to.  That wouldn’t get around the issue of pay, but at least it would put community college internships on a level playing field.  Folks with leverage in this area could make it happen if they chose to.  Hint, hint.

In some programs, the transfer issue isn’t as important.  When a two-year degree is enough to get started in the field, then what the transfer school will accept doesn’t matter much.  But the issue of pay looms large for many students.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a community college find an elegant way around these obstacles?  I think we play a difficult hand well, but if there’s a better way, I’d love to hear it.