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Part 2: As the world interns: The impact of identity and social, economic, and cultural capital on college student internship engagement | History of Internships, Benefits of Internships & Effects on Students’ Collegiate Success

Amanda Chase
April 20, 2022

This is the second of six articles in this series, click here to go to the first article. If you’re searching for a remote internship, go to our search results page that lists all of the remote internships and other entry-level jobs advertised on College Recruiter and then drill down as you wish by adding your desired category, location, company, or job type.


I begin this literature review with an overview of the enigmatic history, definition, and legal requirements of internships, and demonstrate the obscure nature of this topic. Next, I will outline internship benefits, establishing the importance of internships for the individual intern and the organizations who host them. Subsequently, I examine the prevalence of internships in the United States and the conditions that allowed for internships (particularly unpaid internships) to explode in popularity. Next, I will utilize Bourdieu’s (1986) capital theory as a construct for how students participate in internships and introduce a theoretical/conceptual model for the current study. Lastly, I will end the chapter by discussing the significance of the current study.

2.1. A Fog Around History, Definition, and Payment of Internships

Internships began during the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and then began to expand rapidly. Though frustrating to navigate, the patchy information about internship growth over time, the struggle to produce a clear definition of an internship, and lack of knowledge about internship compensation all create a microcosm that demonstrates the lack of transparency and information around internships. After providing examples of the obscurity of this topic, I offer a definition of internships at the end of this section.

After the Industrial Revolution began and companies needed workers with more specialized training, several American colleges began addressing employment needs through cooperative education programs (called “co-ops” for short) (Heinemann, 1981). The University of Cincinnati offered the first co-op programs in engineering and business in 1911, and other collegiate programs began to emerge thereafter (Keeton, 1977). In a collaboration with universities, engineering companies offered paid experiences for students to work with employers in a hands-on setting, which would complement students’ theoretical classroom learning and supply local companies with energetic, lowcost labor. In the years following, co-ops spread to colleges throughout the U.S. and expanded into other disciplines (Heinemann, 1981).

A level of obfuscation has always been present regarding internships. Even when Keaton (1977) was asked to collect a history of experiential education for the Journal of Liberal Education 40 years ago, he noted, “to the best of my knowledge there is not available even a reasonably useful overview of the scope and nature of experiential education in the United States today” (p. 259). Comprehensive information about internships is still inadequate four decades later (Perlin, 2012).

Though information on internships is lacking, Keeton (1977) cited one statistic showing that only 100 higher education institutions had cooperative education programs in 1960. Over the course of 17 years that number had grown tenfold, with 1,030 schools having co-op programs at the time of his writing. Keeton (1977) also discussed internship programs in his report, estimating 1,000 formalized internship programs that year.

Keeton acknowledged that much of the difficulty around assessing numbers of experiential learning is that no one has offered clearly defined language. He wrote, “[the lack of information] results in part from the absence of shared conventions on the usage of terms” (1977). A similar point is made several years later in a paper titled “the History and Rationale for Experiential Learning” (Little, 1981). Little wrote that types of experiential education “have particular names (internship, cooperative education, service learning, work-learning, practicum, field work, field study), but any effort to distinguish one from another requires so many exceptions that the typology quickly breaks down” (p. 15). Though it is difficult to define internships today, this struggle is certainly not just a recent phenomenon.

In addition to the lack of a clear definition for internships and other types of experiential learning, there has also been a lack of clarity about compensation for these types of experiences. Should students receive payment for the work that they complete during their co-op or internship? Or, since the student is still learning and not yet fully proficient, might the student’s training be a substitute for a wage?

The lack of clarity and standards about intern pay even led to significant rifts amongst staff coordinating experiential education programs at various colleges. In cataloging the history of the Cooperative Education Association, Dubé and Miller wrote about some of the tension that emerged around co-op payment and program standards in the 1960s. As cooperative education programs began to expand, disagreements emerged within members of the Cooperative Education Association, a professional organization of staff members who coordinated co-ops. New co-op programs for liberal arts students were emerging, but they were considered a significant departure from the engineering and business co ops that were the founding models of cooperative education. One particular area of tension was that some of the new liberal arts programs did not pay students a wage. Disagreements emerged between the Cooperative Education Association and a similar sister professional organization called the Cooperative Education Division of the American Society of Engineering Education (CED). CED “believed too many concessions were made to the purist model to permit these new programs to call themselves cooperative education…some of the career related employment was considered too far-fetched for many CED members. Sometimes, the jobs were not even paid” (Dubé & Miller, 1988, p. 16). I mention this story to point out that disagreements about internship definitions and payment are not new: They are deeply embedded in the history of experiential education.

Even the history and guidance about internship payment are murky at best. The earliest legal guidance about internship compensation was provided through a 1947 Supreme Court decision. Despite modern internships typically taking place in a professional or office environment, the case that set precedent for internship payment focused on a railroad brakeman working for the Portland Terminal Company. The brakeman argued that he had not been properly compensated according to the Fair Labor Standards Act because he had not been paid for the week-long training period that preceded his paid work with the company (Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., 1947). In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “the Fair Labor Standards Act was not intended to penalize railroads for providing, free of charge, the same kind of instruction at a place and in a manner which would most greatly benefit the trainees” (1947, para. 5). In essence, if an organization provides training that is primarily for the trainee’s benefit (and that may actually impede the company’s business), then the employer should receive special exemption from federal minimum wage laws.

The sentiment behind the Supreme Court’s decision was a good one. Companies should be able to offer an unpaid training experience that makes workers eligible to do paid work in the future. This arrangement seems to benefit all parties: Companies can recruit and then properly train their new hires with minimal costs, and novice employees can take advantage of training that will enable them to make a wage later in their careers.

However, significant aspects of the internship landscape have changed since this 1947 decision. The unpaid training provided by the Portland Terminal Company only lasted a week, whereas most internships now last a full summer or 16-week semester (and sometimes longer). The Portland Terminal Company also paid workers for their training retroactively, once they completed their training and proved their competency. This is not a common arrangement today.

The 1947 Walling decision was the only guidance that the Department of Labor (DoL) offered about paying interns until nearly 50 years later. After receiving a request for clarification about the status of unpaid student interns, the DoL produced an opinion letter to address some of the ambiguities (Sweeney, 1996). It was at this point that the DoL established its so-called “six prong test” for determining whether a worker was a student intern. If all six of the following criteria were true, the DoL would not consider the worker an employee, and the company would not have to pay that person minimum wage.

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. (Sweeney, 1996)

Though the DoL’s definition of an intern is intended to discern when interns should be paid, it is also a useful definition in a landscape that lacks clarity about what an internship actually entails.

An additional internship definition is offered by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which is the leading professional organization focused on employer-college relations and recruitment of workers with college educations (National Association for Colleges and Employers, 2017). NACE has members from 2,100 colleges and universities, and the organization is a well-known source of information about best practices and trends regarding employment. NACE defines an internship as:

  • a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent. (2011)

Still another definition is provided by Kuh (2008), the founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement and Senior Scholar and Co-principal Investigator at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Kuh (2008) added an academic component to his internship definition, describing internships as:

  • direct experience in a work setting—usually related to [students’] career interests—and to give them the benefit of supervision and coaching from professionals in the field. If the internship is taken for course credit, students complete a project or paper that is approved by a faculty member. (p. 11)

The definition of an internship differs between the DoL, NACE, and Kuh, with each one having more of a focus on payment, employer benefits, and academic learning, respectively. Despite their different lenses, they have the following aspects in common.

An internship consists of:
• Work done in a professional environment;
• A connection from applied learning to academic/theoretical knowledge;
• Experience that is valuable for the student, and this experience may in fact be more valuable for the student than for the employer.

For the purposes of this dissertation, I defined an internship using the three above characteristics.

2.2. Benefits of Internships

There is a wealth of benefits for students who engage in internships, including personal growth, accumulation of skills, expansion of personal networks, increases to college and workplace success, and salary and employment gains. Organizations that host interns also see benefits in the form of low-cost labor, a “try-out” period before hiring a permanent employee, and savings in hiring costs. As you read this section and see the many benefits bestowed upon student interns, consider Gloria and Marcus’ stories in Chapter One, and the implications that all students may not have equal access to these
important opportunities.

2.2.1. Personal and Developmental Benefits for Students

Students often recognize the value that internships add to a resume, but there are also significant benefits that students gain from internships on personal and developmental levels. Internships can provide students with the opportunity to “try out” a field to determine if it is a good fit for their needs (Coco, 2000). In my personal experience as an internship coordinator, I have often had students engage in an internship only to find out that the organization or position is not what they expected and is not a
compatible fit for the student’s interests or skills. Students may return expressing that the work was not what they expected it to be, or that their skills were not actually as developed as they thought they were. This kind of skill and interest clarification can help target students’ career paths, and also help them determine areas of growth.

An internship can also give a window into organizational culture that helps to clarify the student’s values around work. After an internship, a student may observe that “there is not enough structure for me in a small organization,” or conversely, “there is too much hierarchy in a corporate environment.” It is within an internship setting that students often clarify their own priorities around work-life balance, compensation needs, physical environment, or organizational mission. Sometimes students’ value clarifications can lead to a significant change in career trajectory.

Even realizations of poor fit are important experiences to have. Discovering incompatibility with a particular company or industry is much more helpful to discover at the internship level, instead of having this realization after committing to permanent, post-graduate employment. As much as internships serve as “try outs” for interns to prove themselves to an organization, they are also opportunities for students to test their expectations in a lower-stakes, more supportive environment. Students can use internships as a sampling of a particular industry or a company’s culture, without the concern of long-term commitment (Coco, 2000).

In addition to testing the skills and interests that they already have, internships allow students to develop new skills that will help them in their future work (Aldas, Crispo, Johnson, & Price, 2010; Simons et al., 2012). Skills are often divided into two categorical types: “Hard skills” are concrete, measurable skills that are often based on specific equipment, procedures, or technology (Laker & Powell, 2011). Examples would be budgeting, programming in JavaScript, CPR certification, and fluency in Spanish. “Transferrable skills” are interpersonal abilities that are needed to navigate the workplace and are less tangible. Transferrable skills include communication, problem solving, and the ability to collaborate (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). Ideally, a student will develop both hard and transferrable skills as a part of their internship experience. A student can feature their newly gained skills on a resume, and these professional and social abilities will also help the intern in future workplaces or job searches.

Additionally, an internship is an environment where students can find mentors to guide them in their career paths (Hurst, Good, & Gardner, 2012). Hurst (2012) explained that mentors provide students with support, feedback, and guidance, and are important for helping recent hires familiarize themselves in a new environment. Mentorship has also been shown to have benefits for mentees such as increased salary, better commitment to the mentee’s employing organization, and higher career satisfaction compared to those who are not mentored (D’Abate, 2010).

2.2.2. Effects on Students’ Collegiate Success

To support student success while enrolled at the post-secondary level, college administrators often advocate for student involvement in “high-impact practices,” citing a correlation between involvement in these activities and collegiate retention and engagement levels (Kuh, 2009; Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2010). High-impact practices are a collection of ten different activities that include internships, as well as undergraduate research, writing-intensive courses, and other experiential education opportunities that involve deep, meaningful learning. Students who participate in these types of collegiate experiences are shown to have significant gains during the time they are enrolled: They are more satisfied with their college experiences, have higher academic performance, and are more likely to persist and graduate than their peers who do not have the same kind of involvement (Kuh, 2008; Kuh et al., 2008).

High-impact practices, which include internships, are also correlated with “compensatory gains” while students are still in school (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2011). Bowen and colleagues (2011) observed that historically underserved students, including African American students and first generation college students, are shown to benefit even more from high-impact practices than do their peers of more privileged backgrounds (Bowen et al., 2011; Kuh, 2008). This increased positive impact for certain populations can be viewed as a buoying effect, bringing the persistence, engagement, and graduation rates closer to the rates of their more privileged peers (Kuh, 2009).

In short, though students, parents, and faculty may not initially think of internships as a way to enhance students’ overall collegiate academic experience, involvement of this type is correlated with staying in school, higher graduation rates, and higher satisfaction with one’s college experience, particularly for students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

2.2.3. Influences on a Graduate’s Hiring Process and Starting Salary

Even though the personal and developmental benefits of internships are valuable, they pale in comparison to the enormous employment and salary benefits that students gain from internships. These employment benefits are especially important in the current economic landscape, which is extremely competitive. In a time when nearly a third of all adults have a college degree (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015), job applicants must also use other signals to stand out from the pack. Educational demographics have changed significantly in the past hundred years: In 1940, only five percent the population over the age of 25 had an undergraduate degree or higher. Over the course of about seventy years, the percentage of bachelor degree-holding individuals increased by fivefold, with a third of the 25 and older population holding college degrees in 2009 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015).

With a larger cohort of college-educated peers competing for a limited number of positions, having an internship on one’s resume is a way to demonstrate additional experience and skills. Simply stated, those who have had prior professional experience will rise above their peers who have not (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2017).

In two different studies, students with internship experience have been shown to be more likely to find post-graduation employment than their peers who have not completed an internship (D’Abate, 2010; Knouse & Fontenot, 2008). Sagen, Dallam, and Laverty (2000) found that students’ collegiate internships had a positive conditional effect on employment success (defined as finding a job within two months of graduation). Sagen and colleagues also point out that the students’ career-preparation experiences may not just be building skills that make them better workers: They argue that an internship credential on a student’s resume signals to employers during the hiring process that the student is more “employable,” and makes employers more likely to hire those students.

Students with internship experience also gain a litany of other employability benefits, compared to their non-interning peers. Those who have interned are shown to have a better understanding of the world of work, they receive more job offers and higher starting salaries, and secure full-time work earlier than those who have not engaged in an internship (Coco, 2000).

Not only do internships make students more likely to be employed, but in some circumstances, internships may be the only entry point to employment in particular industries. In some instances, there are actually fewer entry-level jobs available because roles that were historically taken by recent graduates are now occupied by undergraduate interns (Owens & Stewart, 2016). In an analysis of over 200,000 online internship postings, Sigelman (2015) found that about 20% of entry-level positions within the engineering, media, communications, and marketing sectors have been absorbed by student interns. To think of this in another way, one in five entry-level positions in those fields can only be obtained only by those who begin their careers as interns.

Not only are internships imperative to gain entry into many fields, but they are also a needed credential to earn a sufficient wage post-graduation. A 2016 Forbes article noted that students who have interned will earn a starting salary that is 28% higher than those who did not engage in an internship (Day, 2016). This should not be surprising: When a rising number of college students have internship experience, those without this desirable credential will be the last to be employed and will miss out on more lucrative opportunities.

2.2.4. Long-Term Work Engagement Gains for Students

In addition to the positive effects on hiring prospects and starting salary, collegiate involvement in high impact practices (such as internships) also appears to affect levels of work engagement long after graduation. Gallup (2014b) found that alumni who had participated in the following three activities: an internship, extra/co-curricular activities, and a multi-semester project, were twice as likely to report being engaged in their post-college professional work than their peers who had not taken part in those activities. Gallup points out the significance of engagement in the workplace by examining the liability that disengaged workers can present, explaining that “workers who are actively disengaged are physically present but intellectually and emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace. They are unhappy with their work, share their unhappiness with their colleagues, and jeopardize the performance of their teams” (2014b, p. 3).

Gallup’s findings have implications that stretch far beyond the student who took up these activities in college: Not only does workplace engagement impact an employee’s productivity, but it also has ripple effects on the employee’s coworkers and teams. A student’s involvement with high-impact practices has significant, positive influences on their experiences both during and after college. In all, the effects of high-impact practices are shown to affect everything from a student’s decision to stay in college, to whether they will graduate, to how they will experience their future workplace.

2.2.5. Benefits for Companies

Many companies use internships as a pipeline for new talent, making internships even more vital for post-graduation employment prospects (Coco, 2000). An internship can serve as a “test-drive” for companies as they evaluate new talent, and internships allow organizations to see if the intern would be a good fit at their organization. And it usually is. In a 2016 employer survey, NACE reported that 72.2% of interns eventually received full-time job offers from the companies where they worked, and 85.2% of those offered positions accepted them.

In a Wall Street Journal article, entrepreneur Jay Samit is quoted about the equalizing benefits that smaller companies gain from hiring interns:

Every company, regardless of size, is competing for the same pool of
talent, which is why top recruiters can even command equity for finding
key hires. Internships give startups a chance to hire the best and brightest
from our universities at a fraction of the cost that these same minds will
command when they receive their degrees. (Vasquez, 2014, para. 1)

Another advantage in converting interns to full-time hires is that students can be trained early so that they are ready to join as full-time employees upon graduation (Selingo, 2015). Companies reap significant financial benefits when they train up their own interns, as opposed to hiring from outside of the company. Some sources cite as much as $6,200 in cost savings for each intern hired into a full-time position, when compared to the cost of onboarding a brand-new hire from outside of the company’s network (Gault, Leach, & Duey, 2010).

Converting an intern to a full-time hire also has long-term benefits. Student interns who are eventually hired at their internship company are more likely to persist at the company than those who interned elsewhere or who did not intern at all (National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE), 2016). Additionally, NACE reported that the employability benefits of interning also compound over time: Of students who intern more than one time at a particular organization, nine out of ten will receive offers of full-time employment (compared to an overall offer rate of 72%) (National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 2015a). This statistic may have multiple interpretations. Perhaps companies tend to invite their stand-out interns to return more often, and those students are the ones who most commonly receive employment offers. Or, those students may have received so much training that the company will benefit even more from the full-time hire of those interns. Regardless of the reasons, job applicants fare very well in employment processes with companies where the applicant has previously interned, and hiring companies tend to hire those who are former interns.

Even for employers who hire outside of their own pool of interns, companies have expressed that they are seeking entry-level hires who already have experience, and many organizations prefer that the experience comes from internships. Of employers responding to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2016 Job Outlook survey, 56% of respondents preferred that applicants’ previous experience come from an internship or co-op (compared to 44% of companies that had no preference about the method that candidates used to gain experience).

— This is the second of six articles in this series. Click here to go to the next article. This series of articles are courtesy of Amanda Chase. Amanda Chase is the director of strategic engagement for the collective impact organization Advance Vermont, where she works to increase access to postsecondary education. She also has a private consulting business, and previously worked as the internship coordinator for the University of Vermont. Amanda has worked with a wide variety of businesses to support their hiring goals, from one-person grassroots organizations to Fortune 500 companies. Her hundreds of individual career counseling clients have included high school students applying to first jobs, adults making significant career transitions, retirees seeking encore careers, and everything in between. She received a bachelor of arts in psychology from Hamilton College, a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Vermont, and an Ed.D. in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Vermont. Her work has always centered on issues of equity and access in education and career development. To learn more about Amanda or to get in touch, visit her website.

Chase, Amanda, “As the world interns: The impact of identity and social, economic, and cultural capital on college student internship engagement” (2020). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 1195.

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