$1.8 million grant to shed light on quality, access and equity of college internships

young black woman shaking hands with a man with his back to the camera

A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will enable a team of education researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study college internships and how students of color enter the workforce from college.

Over the next two years the multi-disciplinary research team, led by UW–Madison’s Dr. Matthew T. Hora, assistant professor in the Division of Continuing Studies, will explore an under-studied topic: which characteristics of internships (such as length, quality of mentoring and relationships to students’ coursework) are most associated with student success.

Internships considered high impact but some students can’t pursue them

“Most college students are encouraged to secure an internship as a necessary pathway to their first career,” says Hora. “But our research shows that the quality of internships is uneven. Additionally many working and low-income students, including students of color, don’t have the time or money to pursue internships. Internships shouldn’t be one more benefit of privilege.”

headshot of Matthew Hora
Matthew Hora: “Internships shouldn’t be one more benefit of privilege.”

The grant seeks to uncover issues of quality, access and equity around college internships. The funding will expand an existing UW–Madison study to six new partner universities. They include three Hispanic-Serving Institutions and three Historically Black Colleges and Universities located in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

“If colleges can better understand what kinds of internships result in better outcomes for students, then we can make changes to ensure those experiences are not just available but are equitable for all students,” says Hora.

“This project also aligns with the mission of Continuing Studies, which is to enhance learning for all students regardless of age, race or socio-economic status,” he explained. “Many of today’s college students are adults who hold full-time or part-time jobs. So it’s an important national issue to figure out how to enable these learners to take on internships.”

Data allows for improvements to internship programs

Despite being considered a critical part of the job preparation and college experience, many institutions don’t collect data on internship participation. This grant will result in reports and data visualizations to help universities improve their internship programs.

“We will also study students who participated in college and career-readiness programs during high school, to understand how they are experiencing college and thinking about their future careers,” adds Hora.

Additionally, the funding will support a new ethnographic study into how students of color at three colleges think about their careers and experience their transitions to the workforce, as well as support a Symposia on College Internship Research.

“This grant allows us to provide students with a forum to discuss their experiences, fears and dreams about entering the work world, and for those conversations to drive improvements in how colleges help students navigate those experiences,” says Hora.

This initiative will be led by Hora and three other doctoral graduates of the UW–Madison School of Education, Ross Benbow and Bailey Smolarek, as well as colleagues Zi Chen, Matthew Wolfgram and Amy Rivera. The team brings expertise in cultural anthropology, vocational psychology, sociology and the learning sciences.

The award complements the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s ongoing investments in the Guided Pathways reforms taking place in the nation’s community colleges, and a new initiative exploring the future of work for adolescent and young adult students of color.