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Research project to examine internships at six historically black colleges and universities

September 30, 2019
by Lynn Armitage, WCER communications

The Center for Research on College-to-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) — a project at UW‒Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research — is collaborating with the United Negro College Fund’s Career Pathways Initiative and a vocational psychologist to study internship programs at six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have a high population of STEM graduates.

The $1.5 million NSF-funded longitudinal, mixed-methods study aims to examine students’ experiences with their internships and how these experiences may impact their future wages, employment status, and vocational self-efficacy. This three-year study will be part of the larger “College Internship Study,” launched by CCWT Director Matt Hora and his team in early 2018 that now includes over 14 institutions in the U.S., China, and Japan.

According to Hora, colleges and universities are increasingly advocating that their students take internships. “They are starting to recognize the role internships play in helping students make the sometimes difficult transition between college and the workforce,” he says.

However, the quality of internship programs varies greatly, states Hora, an expert on college-to-workforce issues and co-author of the acclaimed book, “Beyond the Skills Gap.”

“At too many institutions, we simply don’t know enough about the quality of internships, and if colleges are prepared to support what are effectively complex college-employer partnerships. The field especially lacks insights into how internship programs are structured and experienced in the unique socio-cultural and historical contexts of HBCUs.”

Another gap in the literature relates to the question of whether all students—regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status—have access to internships. “Research shows that hiring discrimination continues to be a problem, particularly for African American job seekers. And our own studies have revealed that many students simply cannot take an internship due to work obligations, lack of pay, or limited opportunities in their fields,” Hora adds.

LaToya Owens, director of Learning and Evaluation for the United Negro College Fund, who is partnering with Hora on this project, says there is a real need in higher education for a study that zeroes in on the actual internship experiences of underrepresented students. “We really don’t know what types of experiences African American students are having during their internships and how that translates to their ability to transition into the workforce. I believe this study will give us those answers.”

Using an interdisciplinary approach for this groundbreaking study, Hora has also enlisted the expertise of UW–Madison's Mindi Thompson, a vocational psychologist and associate professor with the School of Education's Department of Counseling Psychology. Thompson says this first-ever collaboration with Hora, an anthropologist and learning scientist by training, is a perfect marriage of skill sets. “My research is about exploring the career and educational development of students, particularly those students who are diverse and underrepresented in some way; Matt brings a deep understanding of internships and job skills through the lens of higher education.”

Through surveys and focus groups with students, and interviews with employers and career services staff at six HBCUs—currently including Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, Morgan State University in Maryland, and Clark Atlanta University in Georgia — the researchers plan to generate rigorous, yet actionable, new insights about what factors contribute to a successful internship experience for African American students in STEM disciplines. “There is not a lot of systematic research on college internships in the U.S.,” says Thompson, “so we are hoping to get a sense of the infrastructure for internships, both on campus and within different organizations that hire interns, to understand what works and what doesn’t, and how internships can be designed to better serve students, particularly diverse and underrepresented students.”

One important component of the study is the controversial topic of paid vs. unpaid internships. “Research is clear that paid interns tend to find more value in their internship and have better employment outcomes when they graduate,” explains Hora, a strong advocate for paid internships. “It’s also an ethical issue. Students are under considerable pressure to pay for the rising costs of tuition and living expenses, and we simply shouldn’t be asking them to work for free.”  Plus, says Hora, in a precarious labor market where benefits and job security are increasingly rare, engaging in unpaid labor sets an unfortunate precedent for students, colleges, and employers.

This study and other important college internships topics, such as strategies for college-employer partnerships, designing effective learning spaces for 21st century skills and inequalities in the intern economy, will be explored at CCWT’s 2nd Annual Symposium on College Internship Research, taking place Oct. 23-24 at the Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus.

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