Paid Internships are a Red Herring

The nationwide increase in internships for new college graduates has begun the debate as to whether or not interns need to be paid. This debate, however important in today’s economy, should not shape how internships are offered for high school and community college students.

Internships for students in high schools and the first year of community college are very different than those undertaken by older college students, graduates and job changers. At least, they should be. Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Earn Little in the Brave New Economy, has made the case that all workers, whether they’re teens or not, deserve to be paid for their services.

Perlin asks:

“Are we simply extending down to younger and younger ages the same kind of inequality, the same skewed playing field that unpaid internships have been creating more generally?”

Is he assuming that teens who are interns are there only to do work for their employer or organization?

We believe that internship experiences for high school and community college students offer more that work experience. Internships, when driven by the school, ensure that the intern is in a rich learning environment where she cannot only apply what she knows but learn and practice new skills and competencies which are key to success in a future career and higher education. It’s not the internship but what a student has learned from the experience.

Learning cannot be left to the student alone. The school needs to set standards, define the criteria for success and evaluate learning to help the student gain the most from her experience. And most importantly, the adults, both teachers and the sponsoring employer, need to help the intern reflect on the experience, and translate what she has learned into language useful on résumés and in interviews for the future School designed and sponsored internships can level the playing field ensuring that low income and minority students have the same opportunities for quality internships as all other students. Leaving finding an internship to the student alone means that students who are connected through friends and family or who have had a wide early exposure to different industries and professions will seek out an internship while those who are not connected and who have had only narrow early exposure to different careers will not. Paying interns does not mean that the playing field will be level. All it means is that students who find internships will get paid.

The way to ensure that good quality internships are available to ALL students is for the school to design a program that has internship opportunities in a variety of different organizations including nonprofits, businesses, educational organizations, local municipal government and elected government. The school designs the site specific learning with the sponsoring organization making sure that students are applying their knowledge and learning critical skills needed for success, ensuring that any problems regarding placement and ongoing activities are addressed, ensuring that students have opportunities for reflection and practice and that learning is evaluated. The school is there to make the internship experience one of quality and one in which the student can succeed.

Cost of 4 year degree

The Rising Cost of a Four-Year Degree

The cost of a 4-year degree in both public and private universities is climbing and is a major concern for many parents and students when considering the best path after high school or community college.

“Salaries and income in the United States have basically been flat or declining over the last couple of years. And back in 2001, it took the average family less than 25 percent of their paycheck to go to college. Today, it takes 40 percent of their paycheck to go to college.” (Jeff Selingo, author of “College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” and contributing editor to “The Chronicle of Higher Education.”)

“While undergraduate education is typically billed as a four-year experience, many students, particularly at public universities, actually take five, six or even more years to attain a degree.”


Expensive college educationIt’s no wonder then that parents hope their children graduate in 4 years. They know that any additional time will cost money and add to student debt. However, too often students are not sure what they want to study when they start college and some change majors, sometimes more than once, which can lead to additional required courses and additional semesters in school. “Some of our highest debt carriers were here longer than four years, and they changed their majors along the way.” says Melanie Weaver, the director of financial aid at Ohio Northern, a private university in Ada in northwestern Ohio.

Many students have told us that they are not sure of what they want to do when they finish college. Many did not even know what career options they have. This is true for high school and community college students.

It is no wonder that students find themselves choosing and studying in an area where they have little or no real interest.

High schools can help ensure that students have a clear and realistic plan for their future by the time they graduate if students have opportunities to do internships.

A well-structured internship, or better yet a number of internships, when students are in high school or community college helps them explore career avenues. Some will find that their internship eliminates a career that they thought they would like. Others find that the internship points them in a direction where they want to go. When it comes time to choose a college major students who have had internships will have the knowledge they need to make a choice that is right for them.

However, it is important for any internship experience to be one that is challenging and one that enables the student to experience a variety of activities in the work environment. Work is not one dimensional and it falls on the internship designer or coordinator to make sure that students are challenged and have the opportunity to explore the different dimensions of a job.

Well-structured and robust internship experiences will help students know what they want to do in the future. They will also help students get on the road which is right for them.

Photo credit: Tax Credits / Foter / CC BY

Make last semester count

Make That Last Semester Really Count

Too often that last semester in high school or community college can be one where students may be there physically but mentally they are thinking about the end of school. With most required courses completed students are finishing any elective requirements and waiting to move on. Community college students may be planning to transfer to a 4-year college or start a career and high school seniors are looking forward to college or moving on to the world of work.

Why not use these months to help students build the skills they will need for success in whatever path they decide to travel?

With a well-structured internship students have the opportunity to learn and practice new skills while still under the protective umbrella of the school. Students are NOT left on their own to find their way in a work environment but are guided and supported by the school as they take that next step into adulthood. A quality internship, whether as part of a senior project or as an elective course will allow the student to:

  • Apply his knowledge and learning in the real world
  • Build critical skills of team working, achievement focus and time management
  • Build Networking relationships
  • Establish a mentoring relationship in the real world
  • Work on projects that provide value to his sponsoring organization

However, any internship must be meaningful. It needs to be structured with challenging goals and activities, have the involvement of the sponsoring organization, have a variety of ways for the intern to demonstrate his learning and have an opportunity for the intern to reflect on and consolidate his learning.

Students who do an internship in their last semester want to have the opportunity to show their school what they have achieved. Many schools provide a capstone activity that is a way for students to show how they have linked their classroom learning to their achievements in their internship. This may be in the form of a formal Project Presentation or Exhibit in the school or college or may be a more informal presentation to their work colleagues and sponsoring organization.

Quality internships should be integrated into the school’s curriculum so they are not perceived as an add-on activity. And ideally students should know that internships are how they will consolidate their learning and move on to the next phase of their life.
As Lori Desautels, Professor in the School of Education Marian University says internships “could become meaningful learning in these adolescent years for students driven by a personal sense of autonomy, purpose and mastery.”