$1.8 Million Grant Expands Study of College Internships & How Students of Color Enter Workforce

June 25, 2019   |   By Janet L. Kelly

A student searches for his first job after college at a UW-Madison career fair.

A student searches for his first job after college at a UW-Madison career fair.

Over the next two years, a team of education researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison will use a new $1.8 million grant to learn significantly more about college internships and how students of color enter the workforce from college.

Awarded to the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions (CCWT) in the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research, the funding will allow Matthew T. Hora and his multi-disciplinary research team to expand the College Internship Study from its current five campuses to six new partner institutions. The new partner institutions are made up of three Hispanic-Serving Institutions and three Historically Black Colleges and Universities located in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.  The aim of this mixed-methods longitudinal study is to investigate which features of internships – such as length, quality of mentoring and relationship to students’ coursework – are associated with student success. 

A surprisingly under-studied topic, this grant’s focus will help establish the first nationwide study of college internships, which many consider a “high-impact” practice that all college students should experience.  However, recent research conducted by CCWT reveals that the quality of internships is uneven, and many working and low-income students have difficulty finding the time and money to pursue them.  This new grant, Hora says, “will allow us to shed important new light on issues of quality, access and equity around college internships.”

“Another important outcome of the grant,” says Hora, “is that we’ll be working closely with our institutional partners to provide customized reports and interactive online data visualizations to faculty, career advisors and leadership at each campus.”  This is important because many colleges do not currently collect data on internship participation, which can hinder their efforts to continually improve these programs and make decisions based on data. An additional focus of the grant is to examine how students who had participated in college and career-readiness programs during high school are experiencing college and thinking about their future careers.

 According to Hora, who is an assistant professor in Liberal Arts and Applied Studies, the new funding also will support future annual Symposia on College Internship Research, like the one that brought more than 100 scholars and practitioners to UW-Madison in 2018, and a new ethnographic study of how students of color at three colleges think about their careers and experience their transitions to the workforce.  “This project is particularly exciting,” says Hora, “because it builds on our center’s successful student-led Participatory Action Research (PAR) projects, and will provide a prominent outlet for these students to discuss their experiences, fears and dreams about entering the world of work.”

“Overall, knowing more about how and which internships are effective is important for providing students and employers on-the-job experiences that will lead to enhancing the ability of colleges and universities to affect positive institutional change while also ensuring equitable access to high-quality learning experiences for all students,” states Hora. This initiative will be led by Hora and three other doctoral graduates of the UW-Madison School of Education, Ross Benbow, Jamila Johnson and Bailey Smolarek, as well as colleagues Zi Chen, Matthew Wolfgram and Amy Rivera, who will bring their expertise in cultural anthropology, vocational psychology, sociology and the learning sciences to the project.

This project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the award will complement the 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.