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College to work: Findings from a study of the Career Readiness Internship program

In recent years, the field of postsecondary education has been increasingly focused on providing students opportunities to gain work experience. Federal, state, and local governments have been working to create avenues for students to participate in internships and apprenticeships as they build their academic and workforce skills in college or other training programs. Similarly, many postsecondary education institutions have begun investing in services that help students obtain internships or other work-based learning opportunities while enrolled in college. Recent surveys of employers highlight the importance of these ventures, as many employers argue that they have difficulty finding college graduates who can demonstrate important workplace skills, such as data analysis and complex problem solving. Despite this increased national attention on work-based learning opportunities, internship programs vary markedly from college to college, and very few mechanisms exist for evaluating the quality of the experiences they offer students. For instance, while researchers have noted the importance of providing wages to interns, the majority of internships are unpaid, making it difficult for lower-income students to participate in these opportunities. Moreover, differing expectations between student interns and employers can lead to challenges in these relationships. Finally, some internships provide limited exposure to meaningful work as companies have interns perform simple tasks that are unrelated to students’ intended careers. Hoping to overcome these challenges, Ascendium Education Group (formerly Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates) established the Career Readiness Internship (CRI) program in 2015. The CRI program provided funding and support to 33 colleges in four states for the development of quality paid internships for low-income students. This report presents findings from an analysis of the implementation of the CRI program at these colleges as well as student and employer perspectives of the program. Overall, the study found that colleges were successful at recruiting large numbers of low-income and traditionally underserved students into the program and providing them valuable career-focused internship experiences. Additionally, employers tended to have high regard for the program and their collaborations with the colleges. Nevertheless, colleges had difficulties maintaining and expanding the CRI program at the conclusion of the grant period, suggesting that more needs to be done to help colleges institutionalize the progr