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What is the Value of a College Internship?

June 11, 2019 · 5 minute read

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What is the Value of a College Internship?

The history of internships goes back centuries, back to apprenticeships of the Middle Ages. In medieval times, craftsmen would teach others their trade, which helped villages ensure that skilled people could provide what their communities needed. In turn, the craftsmen were promised the labor of those they taught, while apprentices learned a practical way to make a living.

In a college internship, a student works for an organization for a specified period of time, typically to gain work experience in a field of choice and/or to complete a college requirement.

Today, internships tend to be significantly shorter than apprenticeships of yesteryear. They can be full-time or part-time, paid or unpaid. Plus, when college students participate in internships, it’s often a chance for them to explore certain careers, whereas apprenticeships largely defined the future worklife of participants. Finally, internships are often designed to provide a broad look at possibilities, rather than more niche skills taught to apprentices.

Read on to learn the value of internships and how to find the right opportunities.

Paid Versus Unpaid Internships

According to the National Association of College and Employers (NACE) in a report released in 2018 , college interns are getting paid for their contributions more often than in the past. Using 2017 data, they reported that 61% of graduating seniors participated in an internship (or co-op experience) and, by looking at that group, almost 57% of them were paid. Contrast that to NACE’s earliest data, from 2011, when about 51% of college interns were paid.

The report also shows that paid internships are more common in the private sector than at nonprofit organizations: In 2017, nearly 38% of all internships were paid at for-profit businesses, but fewer than 11% were paid at nonprofits.

NACE also notes, though, that the growing trend of paid internships may not necessarily continue. That’s because, in January 2018, new guidelines were issued by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). They “scrapped” the test previously in use for internships in this regard, and, under the new system, if the intern is the main beneficiary of the experience, then they can be unpaid. The DOL notes, though, that the primary beneficiary test is a flexible one, recognizing “unique circumstances of each case.”

Unpaid internships are a hotly debated subject—even on Twitter. The gist of one argument, compiled by Fortune.com :

Yes, unpaid internships can be good, say some tweets. The sacrifices made by these college students can lead to success and shows their commitment to their career path.

No, say others, who often pointed out that not everyone has the financial resources or external support to go a period of time without working for pay. In fact, for some people, that’s downright impossible, so how fair is that?

Value of Internships: Improved Employment Opportunities

A talent development professional shared his thoughts about how much college internships can help with getting a job in your industry of choice—and he believes it can help significantly in multiple ways.

First, he said, most high-quality organizations offering internships use it, at least in part, to identify quality candidates for entry-level professional positions. The internship period, for those companies, allows them to vet interns to see whom they are impressed with, and this can lead to a “more permanent commitment.”

And the value of college internships goes beyond potentially getting a job where you interned. If you apply elsewhere, other companies may very well look to see whether or not you’ve completed an internship. If you have, this could indicate the level of seriousness you have about pursuing your chosen career. It also shows that another organization was willing to have you work for them, another plus.

In fact, a recruitment consultant calls college internships the “ultimate return on investment .” She said she believes the value of a college degree lies at the “intersection of financial cost, subject matter expertise, and ability to secure employment.”

And, to become gainfully employed, it’s important to build experience and gain the ability to job search. The latter can be taught, and many college centers offer assistance in writing resumes and cover letters and interviewing professionally.

But, internships could also give you real-world experience. That’s how, she said, students can maximize their college experiences to parlay them into real-world rewards.

According to the 2015 study by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce , 63% of students completing a paid internship are offered a job. Compare that to students who didn’t intern, and the number drops to 35%.

Value of Internships: Personal Development

When you intern at a company, you’re not just gaining experience— it also can help you decide what you really want.

Although, say, a summer internship may not provide enough time to definitively decide if a certain path is right for you, it might be! At a minimum, you’re more industry-savvy than you were before, which might help guide your direction.

Your internship could also help you develop a professional network—a group of people who might assist you as you forge your own unique career path. They could invite you to industry events, and your contacts could also share job opportunities with you—they might even be able to provide references. And, as you build your professional network, it could be important to nourish those relationships and reciprocate whenever you can.

Internships might help you build confidence, as well, in your knowledge, skills, and abilities. As you build confidence, you could also boost your interviewing skills and otherwise put yourself in a stronger position to continue to build your chosen career.

How to Find Internships

You could start by talking to your school counselors. They’ve been down this road before and often have invaluable resources to share. You could also talk to chambers of commerce, consult with professional associations connected to your career, ask for recommendations in the industry-focused clubs you belong to at college, and otherwise network and ask for advice. There may also be alumni from your school who might be willing to make recommendations.

Some of the more coveted opportunities tend to fill up early, so you might want to start your search as early as you can. Your college’s career center might be able to guide you with timelines. You could focus on something that dovetails with your college major, but don’t worry about being too specific. Gaining a broad knowledge of your areas of interest could help you choose the right career.

You could also attend career fairs and check online resources. For example, Internships.com might be a great place to look. And, if you’re interested in specific companies, you could check their websites for opportunities.

Student Loan Refinancing

Internships could be invaluable for college students when it comes time to hunt for a job, and if you have student loan debt, getting a job earlier means you might have opportunities to pay down your student loan debt faster and potentially save on the amount of interest you’ll pay back overall.

Another strategy you could consider is to consolidate all of your student loans and then refinance them into one low-interest loan for serious savings. It’s fast and easy to find out how much money you could save by using SoFi’s online student loan refinance calculator.

You simply input current student loan information and SoFi does the calculating, showing you your estimated savings monthly as well as over the lifetime of your loan. If you have multiple student loans, you could combine them and average the principal amounts. It is important to remember, however, that if you refinance your loans with a private lender, you will lose access to federal benefits such as student loan forbearance and forgiveness.

Ready to get started refinancing your student loans at SoFi? You can find your rate in just two minutes.


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