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?