Internships and Upward Mobility

by James A. Bacon

From time immemorial, it has been a priority of Virginia governors of both parties to promote workforce development through community college, job training programs, apprenticeships, and the like. An under-utilized strategy, suggests Beyond Academy, is college internships.

Beyond Academy, which markets international internship programs, has published a report ranking the 50 states by the percentage of college alumni who had internships. Gaining practical workforce experience before graduating gives a significant leg up in career advancement, the company contends.

The study draws data from 43 million LinkedIn profiles. Nationally, around 13% of college graduates list internships in their professional background. The rate varies from state to state: a high of 20% in Rhode Island and a low of 8% in Alaska. State outcomes hinge largely upon the success of its colleges and universities in placing their students as interns. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, has a 32% internship rate, while the University of Phoenix has only 1%.

Virginia fares slightly better than the national average with 14%, enough to rank it 15th in the country. But there appears to be room for improvement. Here follows a breakdown for the Virginia higher-ed institutions listed in the survey:

University of Virginia — 23%
Virginia Tech — 22%
James Madison University — 20%
College of William & Mary — 19%
George Mason University — 16%
Marymount University — 15%
Virginia Commonwealth University — 14%
Hampton University — 13%
University of Lynchburg — 12%
Radford University — 10%
Liberty University — 9%
Regent University — 9%
Shenandoah University — 9%
Old Dominion University — 8%
Mary Baldwin University — 8%

Elite universities tend to have more student interns than non-elite institutions — the rate for the Top 50 is 21% — 8 percentage points higher than the national average.

“Broadly, the picture is one of deep inequality — the more prestigious a university, the more likely a student is to have undertaken an internship,” says the report. “That double advantage of university name recognition and practical experience means that students at those top institutions are far more likely to fast-track their careers and achieve success.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Beyond Academy raises issues that are worth exploring. To be sure, the company is in the business of connecting students with internships, so it is biased toward findings that amplify the value of internships. That doesn’t mean its claims are wrong — just that they need to be subjected to scrutiny.

An individual’s success in a mostly meritocratic, market-based economy is largely a function of his or her economic productivity. Any number of influences contribute to an individual’s productivity: native intelligence, personal drive and other personality traits, the quality of education received, and family connections, among other factors. If, as Beyond Academy contends, interns get a head start in career development, internships are a potential equalizer. I’d like to see impartial social-scientific research on the subject.

For purposes of argument, let’s accept the premise that internships are one means of accelerating a young person’s career development. If our goal is to create an “opportunity” society that provides avenues of upward social mobility for lower-income Virginians, then we should consider the idea of promoting internships — especially for students among Virginia’s non-elite higher-ed institutions.

Forcing “equal outcomes” between different demographic groups through reverse racism or massive transfers of wealth are morally odious because they substitute “group” justice for individual justice. By contrast, an “opportunity” society equips individuals to improve their lives by increasing their economic productivity. If it can be demonstrated that internships at non-elite universities can level the playing field, Virginia should pursue this avenue more aggressively.

Update: Tod Massa at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia alerted me to the Virginia Talent + Opportunity (TOP) program administered in partnership with the Virginia Chamber Foundation. Virginia TOP works “collaboratively with institutions, students, and employers to increase connectivity through the development of readiness resources and innovative engagement solutions.”

“A recent survey of Virginia graduates revealed that fewer than half of the almost 15,350 respondents had completed one or more internships during their undergraduate experience,” notes the Virginia TOP website. “More than half of respondents also noted that their internship helped them to receive a job offer post-graduation.”