The inability to participate in internships presents a problem for students because internships are widely regarded as an important indicator of a student’s readiness to become employed. A recent study found that students who included an apprenticeship on their curriculum vitae were offered an interview 14% more frequently than their peers who did not include an internship.

In addition, there is mounting evidence to suggest that participation in internships is linked to lower levels of unemployment after graduation, increased wages, and even improved academic performance in comparison to students who do not participate in internships. To be more specific, students who participated in an internship experienced 15% lower unemployment, 6% increased salaries five years after graduation, and final-year grades were 3.4% higher than those who did not participate in an internship. These positive outcomes were compared to students who did not participate in an internship. 

Internships are now being promoted as “high-impact” training that universities and colleges should incentivize all students to explore. One of the primary reasons for this promotion is the impact that internships have on the educational success and job prospects of students. But the evidence we have shows that this kind of advocacy is problematic. What we’ve discovered is that access to internships, particularly ones that don’t pay at all or pay very little, is skewed toward wealthy students who are in a better position to forego a paycheck in exchange for the opportunity to gain invaluable work experience. 

We investigated this question and came up with five substantial roadblocks that make it challenging for certain students to participate in internships. 

The Necessity of Holding Down Paid Employment

The fact that students were required to keep working at either a full-time or part-time job was the barrier that was cited most frequently as preventing students from participating in an internship. This was cited as an impediment by sixty percent, or forty-five of the students, who wanted to participate in an internship but were unable to. 

The percentage of undergraduate students who have been employed ranges from 43% for those attending college full-time to 81% for those attending college part-time. These jobs assist with paying for the ever-increasing cost of tuition, in addition to other necessary expenses such as housing, food, and transportation. It is simply not feasible for the growing number of older students who are responsible for supporting relatives and have monthly bills to pay to give up a job that is well-paying and secure to take part in a temporary apprenticeship that would likely pay less. 

There Are Way Too Many Classes

When we asked why they were unable to work an internship, 56 percent of the students who responded, or 376 individuals, mentioned a demanding course load as the cause of why they were unable to do so. This was particularly true for pupils who were majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, which require a significant amount of homework and also require students to spend time in the laboratory. 

The majority of students who reported having a demanding course load were either full-time students or students who worked part-time jobs. Time is still at a premium for these students, even though 71% of university students who work part-time employment put in 20 hours or more. According to the observation of one student, living such a life results in “back-to-back-to-back scheduling,” which leaves little time for either self-care or an internship. 

There May Not Be Many Opportunities

Students who were majoring in the social sciences, arts, or social sciences consistently cited having trouble finding an internship, let alone one that paid them. Research has shown that students majoring in creative and artistic disciplines have fewer opportunities for paid internships. As a result, many students majoring in these fields encounter the dual challenge of an inadequate number of openings and a deficient amount of financial compensation. 

In our research, we found that a significant barrier for 45 percent of the students, or 301 individuals, who did not participate in internships was the absence of internship opportunities in their chosen field or even in their current location. However, it would be naive to believe that the difficulties of locating an internship are confined solely to students majoring in art history or English; this assumption would be incorrect. One pupil in a physics and applied math curriculum in Wisconsin offered the following explanation for why he had not participated in an internship: “There aren’t any opportunities provided for me in my field.” 

Internships That Are Either Unpaid or Underpaid

Students who were unable to participate in internships due to financial constraints made up 33 percent, or 224 in total, of the student population. According to Janelle said, “My biggest struggle is that most of them are unpaid. I’m going to be 26 next year, getting married in the next year, and attempting to do adult things, but not getting paid for a few months is simply not something I can afford to do at the moment.” Simply put, it is simply not possible for many university students to work for little or no pay, and this includes working for free. 

Many internships, particularly those in the industries of finance, government, art forms, communications, or political science, are situated in expensive cities, which require relocating to the city as well as paying high rents and high costs of daily living. This is in addition to the fact that many internships do not pay at all. While there are no national statistics available on the predominance of unpaid internships, our research found that 34 percent of the student interns who participated in the program did not receive payment for their work.

The evidence suggests that unpaid internships have a negative correlation with students’ future earnings and employment results, which highlights the problematic nature of unpaid work for university students. In addition to the fact that the absence of pay is a deal-breaker for several pupils, the data also shows that unpaid internships are negatively associated with students’ future wages. 

A Shortage of Available Transport

19% of the non-interns in our study, or 129 individuals, cited difficulty with transportation as a barrier. These students’ lack of access to a vehicle effectively restricted their internship choices to those that were available on campus or that could be reached by public transportation. 

When considering these challenges, it is essential to bear in mind that certain students are confronted with two or more of these overlapping challenges at the same time. This, in turn, puts students from affluent, well-connected, and fortunate families in a better situation when it comes to guaranteeing internships, which could be a critical component of their first job. This disadvantage accrues to students across the board. 

The current state of affairs cannot continue because too “many hopeful young adults with lesser resources are refused the opportunity to progress as high as their talent will take them,” as Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, stated in an opinion piece about America’s “internship-industrial complex.”

Because of this, as part of the College Internship Study, we too are documenting effective approaches that our partner organizations are pursuing to make internships more accessible for all university students. Some examples of these promising strategies include course-embedded initiatives, undergrad research, and now even micro-internships, which offer pupils short-term projects that employers need to complete while also introducing them to the world of precarious “gig” labor. 

The facts of working another shift, having demanding coursework, and not having transport will prevent a significant number of students from “opening the door of possibility” which is represented by an internship. This will continue to be the case until universities and colleges dedicate more funds to creating support networks for students struggling with these hurdles.