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Rethinking the Summer Internship

How to create equitable summer opportunities to help all students bridge the gap between college and career
Graduate in a maze

High school and college students often use the summer as a chance to gain work experience to prepare for the post-graduation job search, usually in the form of internships. Yet, not all students have the same access to these experiences.

According to Rachel Lipson, project director of Project on the Workforce, a joint project between HGSE, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Harvard Business School, “there’s a lot that’s left unsaid about how you get from that post-graduation starting point and into your desired field. This gap is especially stark if you come from a background where you haven’t had exposure to high-wage job trajectories.”

Those with family members who work in high-paying industries and have extensive social networks, attend a college or university with a well-resourced career services office, or have financial flexibility to take a unpaid position have an advantage when it comes to connecting their educational experiences with the workforce. It is often the students who need these opportunities and experiences most that are unable to access summer internships — and may be unable to bridge the gap between college and career in the ways peers with more resources and more extensive networks do.

“If you ask students why they go to college, survey data says the economic piece is huge contributor,” says Lipson. “People believe college is the pathway to a good job. Post-graduation outcomes matter — that’s what people have bought into as part of the American dream. It’s contingent on schools and community partners to deliver that.”

To make the transition from college to career more effective for all students, not just a select few, hiring managers and leaders in high schools and higher education should consider:

  • Partnerships with community colleges: Often, community college systems serve a socioeconomically and racially diverse populations. Hiring from these talent pools can diversify the workforce and expand opportunity.
  • Supporting students with funding or credit: Some schools intentionally raise funds to support students with a stipend over the summer to decrease the financial burden of an internship or work experience. Offering college credit can also help speed up time to graduation and reduce the total cost of college.
  • Developing career service offices: Funding for career services in colleges, particularly community colleges, has not been a priority, especially in public higher education settings. To help schools deliver on the promise of economic mobility, students need access to a broader system of guidance, supports, and employer connections.
  • Building cohorts for students who, historically, have not had access to career supports: Research has shown that building a community of peers, especially for first generation students and students of color, can help share information about accessing jobs and career opportunities. Nonprofit organizations or leaders in high schools and colleges can designate explicit spaces and meeting times for students to connect with each other and potentially bring in guest speakers and hiring managers to speak directly about internships and the job search process.
  • Connecting students with mentors: Internships are more effective learning experiences when students work on a team or have a coach, rather than working independently. Connect students with opportunities that allow for this kind of support, rather than just the work experience alone.

Key Takeaways

  • College is often seen as a pathway to a good job. But colleges often don’t fully connect those dots for students. The summer internship can be an opportunity to connect college with a career.
  • Social capital and networks matter and influence the kinds of work opportunities students access. To better support populations like first-generation students or students of color and ensure equitable access, school and nonprofit leaders can bolster students’ existing networks with supports like cohort communities, and connect students with mentors who can continue to nurture student career trajectories.
  • Find innovative ways like partnerships with local companies or community colleges to develop and diversify the talent pipeline and create experiences for students to develop skills in a professional context.

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