Expand paid internships for community college students

A student in Bunker Hill Community College's Learn and Earn program interns in the human resources department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. (Photo: Michael Malyszko)

Paid internships would give community college students a leg up in the job market, and exposure to corporate culture and would give employers a chance to test out candidates’ skills before committing to hire them, according to a report from the Boston Foundation.

Yet, community college students are underrepresented in internship programs in high-demand sectors in Massachusetts compared to four-year college and university students, it adds.

A survey by the foundation found employers in Massachusetts that provide paid internships to community colleges tend to be enthusiastic about those students’ knowledge, readiness, productivity, persistence, diversity their likelihood of staying with the company upon graduation. Meanwhile, community college leaders noted that they support expanding paid internships but worry that their career service offices lack enough staff and capacity to manage employer relationships.

The report calls on Massachusetts policymakers to support incentives for employers and community colleges to support paid internships. (It adds that such internships must be paid because many lower-income community college students would be reluctant to leave their current, low-paying jobs to make ends meet.)

“Internships provide both a financial benefit and a critical opportunity for students at a time when they can benefit greatly from the experience and professional network development,” said Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the foundation. “A more systematic program would not only make internships more accessible for students, they could create more consistent pipelines for employers in some of the region’s fastest-growing industries.”

The regional landscape

The foundation offers recommendations on designing such a program based on existing internship initiatives. One of them is in Ohio, which launched an $11.45 million program called Ohio Means Internships & Co-Ops in 2012 with one-time funding from casino gaming licensing fees. The program provides matching funding to six regional consortia of local public and private colleges and universities and their business partners to promote internships and co-op placements.

Another option is a regional approach, which vary significantly in funding and who they serve. A regional initiative led by the University of Cincinnati, for example, targeted first-generation students and Lorain Community College single parents.

In 2017, the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation (recently rebranded as the Ascendium Education Group) launched a $2.1 million program to support 1,000 paid internships at 16 community colleges in six Midwestern states. The internships target students with financial need, are available for jobs in the private and nonprofit sectors, and are part-time to not interfere with students’ academic studies.

California’s LaunchPath was created as a platform that uses algorithms to link employers offering paid or unpaid internships with high school and community college students. The program, a joint effort of the Foundation for California Community Colleges and a K–12-focused organization called Linked Learning, was funded by JP Morgan Chase as part of its New Skills at Work initiative.

The market for paid workforce internships was underdeveloped, however, so the program wasn’t as useful as anticipated. As a result, LaunchPath was reinvented to focus on helping its partners determine the regional educational and economic landscape and develop a plan to expand work-based learning and internship opportunities. LaunchPath now is working with 32 California community college districts to pilot test its products and services to expand the number and quality of work-based learning experiences.

In Massachusetts, the Learn and Earn program provides paid internships to Bunker Hill Community College students in a wide range of industries and occupations. Since the program started in 2012, 525 students have been placed into internships. Interns work 16 to 40 hours a week over five to seven months or during the summer and earn at least $15 an hour. Currently 17 corporate, small business, civic and nonprofit partners are participating. Companies provide mentors and professional development. A key element is a travel stipend, as it removes a potential barrier to student participation.

Design principles

The foundation’s report recommends the following design principles for a new statewide internship initiative to give community college students work experiences:

  • Organize by region.
  • Emphasize sectors important statewide and regionally.
  • Prioritize paid work to address access and equity.
  • Provide opportunities for academic credit.
  • Leverage existing state-funded internship programs.
  • Set clear expectations of employers and colleges.
  • Simplify the process of matching students to opportunities.
  • Collect and report pertinent metrics.
  • Combine state and philanthropic dollars for maximum impact.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.