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'Internships' too vague to be requirement for graduation, study finds

A recent study found that more research should be done on internships before making it a graduation requirement.

Image By: Dana Kampa

For many, job experience in the form of an internship can seem like a golden ticket to employment — but a recent study suggests it’s not that simple.

In February, Gov. Scott Walker included a proposal in the 2017-’19 biennial budget that would have required all UW System students to have work experience or complete an internship before graduation. Walker said this would bridge the gap between the classroom and workplace experience.

But ultimately, the Joint Finance Committee struck it down.

In response to the proposal, researchers at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions conducted a three-month introductory review on work-based learning.

The review’s findings ran counter to Walker’s call to mandate internships. One of the main findings from the study was that internships lacked a clear definition, making it challenging for research to take characteristics like payment, duration and mentorship into account. As a result, Matt Hora, director of CWWT, showed that it’s not clear how internships should be set up.

Without a definition, it’s hard to see the effects of internships on students’ employability, long-term wages and career satisfaction — ultimately making it a challenge to provide a definitive claim about internships as a whole, Hora said.

“Just checking the box ‘I took an internship,’ doesn’t tell you much of anything about what that internship experience what was like,” Hora said.

Since institutional data only tracks whether or not students had an internship, it isn’t clear what the quality of the experience was like for students, Hora said.

Even outside of the study, there are hurdles across the UW System that stand in the way of mandating internships. For example, while UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee are based in larger cities, he said certain majors at other UW System campuses may struggle to find meaningful internships that are accessible without relocation.

And not all internships are paid, which excludes students who can’t afford to work without compensation.

“Just thinking deeply about these things before jumping in and making a requirement — I think that’s just the main recommendation from our lit review. We can’t just mandate internships without doing a lot of the homework behind thinking through ‘What does it take to do this well so that employers and students have a good experience?’ because if we just jump into it, there is evidence that internships can be designed and implemented poorly,” Hora said. “That doesn’t benefit anybody.”

While the review suggests more research must be done, it doesn’t completely denounce the value of an internship.

“I’m not saying internships are not useful. Some of the strongest data out there is that an internship does improve a student’s employability,” Hora said. “I’m saying when we do it, we need to think much more deeply about how to do them and make sure that the resources are available to do it well.”

In fact, Hora pointed to the Wisconsin School of Business as an example of a school that has an excellent internship system because of the college’s strong coordination with employers. As the director of career services at the school’s undergraduate program, Jamie Marsh attributed their success to staff as well as size.

With 2,500 to 2,700 students in the program, Marsh said the school deals with a smaller population compared to other schools which can have as many as 17,000 students. This, in addition to faculty connections within the professional business industry, gives the school an advantage.

“Our faculty are great,” Marsh said. “I think there is a culture here in Grainger where it’s important for us to be teaching theory and concepts, but we need to also make sure there is sort of an industry voice here, too because we are a business school.”

Much of the faculty have put down roots in the business sector before teaching at the school, Marsh said. Some faculty members are even actively working with the industry on research and projects, she said.

Marsh said the School of Business has the largest employer program in Wisconsin — about 553 employers come to Grainger Hall to recruit BBA students each year. Although the Wisconsin School of Business doesn’t require undergraduates to get an internship before they graduate, Marsh said about 90 percent of students complete one during their time at UW-Madison.

The school evaluates students’ career outcomes through student feedback and will sometimes send out surveys asking specifics about the internship, but Marsh said they mostly emphasize one-on-one career advising appointments. With this information, the school then passes the feedback over to employers so they can make adjustments.

Still, Marsh said mandating internships might not be the answer — with 10 percent of students not completing an internship, it’s possible that population isn’t being offered the right type of work experience opportunity.

“I’m not sure that we need to be defining for students exactly what that should look like. I think we should offer a plethora of different types of experiences so the student has a little bit of choice to navigate what’s right for them,” Marsh said. “So I like the idea of everyone having some applied experience. I don’t know exactly that needs to be an internship. It could take a different form.”

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