New study reveals only 22 percent of college students did internships during pandemic

By CCWT/WCER Communications

CCWT researchers found several outcomes that bucked conventional wisdom about online internships.

Surprising findings from a study funded by the National Science Foundation* about online internships during the COVID-19 pandemic have been released by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT), which is housed in the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW–Madison.

As the pandemic hit the U.S. last spring, conventional wisdom said in-person internships would be mostly cancelled as college students flocked to online positions. Some also speculated that online internships would address the long-standing equity and opportunity gaps in the internship economy.

But the pandemic environment was new ground, and conventional wisdom was wrong on both counts, the study shows.

“It is no exaggeration to state that the field of higher education is engaging in a massive experiment, in which students are completing online internships with limited evidence to support their usefulness for students, or their effectiveness in contributing to positive educational or career outcomes for college graduates,” says CCWT Director Matthew T. Hora, an assistant professor of adult and higher education in the Division of Continuing Studies at UW–Madison.

Over the past year, the CCWT team conducted a multi-site case study that included:

  • Analysis of survey data from 9,964 students at 11 colleges and universities participating in the pilot phase of CCWT’s new National Survey of College Internships (NSCI);
  • Surveys and interview data from two online internship networking platforms (OINPs); and
  • A case study of one employer’s online internship program.

The full 64-page report is available here. A six-page executive summary also is available.

While findings from the study are not strictly generalizable across entire institutions or the entire U.S. college population due to sampling methodology,** the report is wide-reaching and thorough enough to yield valuable insights for students, employers, and university officials going forward, Hora says.

“These data reflect the largest survey of its kind that captures the experiences of college students with online internships,” Hora notes. “It provides critical new insights that should be considered by postsecondary professionals and employers alike, as they continue to offer and promote online internships.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • Finding #1: Internship participation during the pandemic was very low (about one out of five students) and interns were split 50-50 between in-person and online positions, despite conventional wisdom that all internships would move online.
  • Finding #2: OINPs play an important role in the ecosystem of internships, but demand far outstripped available positions for students.
  • Finding #3: Online interns were more likely to be continuing-generation, have higher GPAs, come from upper-income families, and be non-STEM majors than in-person interns.
  • Finding #4: Online internships do not appear to be solving the access and equity problem. More online positions (42 percent) than in-person ones (34.9 percent) were unpaid.
  • Finding #5: Online interns reported a host of negatives about their experience. They cited lower levels of overall satisfaction, career and academic developmental value, 21st century skills development, network development, and high-skill tasks than in-person interns did.
  • Finding #6: Online internships in the future need to be designed with greater attention to task design, supervision, and communication.
  • Finding #7: Support services and training must be provided to employers and postsecondary institutions to improve how online internships are designed and implemented.
Matthew Hora

“These data show that far fewer college students are taking internships than previously assumed, and that in-person internships definitely did not disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hora says about these key departures from conventional wisdom. Furthermore, he states, “While remote work and online internships will remain a reality for many professions and sectors, it is clear that colleges and universities need to work with employers to ensure that they are as effective learning experiences as in-person positions.”

Until that happens, the online internship should be viewed “with caution” as a form of experiential learning, Hora says, noting: “It is one with great potential to reach thousands of students unable to take an in-person position, but something that is clearly a work in progress.”

Additional data on online internships will be collected in the fall 2021 administration of the National Survey of College Internships. This brand new survey of work-based learning will launch in October 2021, and will be the first survey in the nation that collects detailed data about internships from college students throughout the U.S.

*The $145,000 grant to CCWT for this study comes from NSF’s Rapid Response Research program, through which the agency is able to quickly process and support research that addresses an urgent need. The NSF rapid-grant awards for COVID-19 are funding dozens of projects designed to bolster national response to the viral outbreak.

** These data are based on self-selected samples, which are subject to sampling and non-response bias.

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