Are Internships a Replacement for a College Education?

14 01 2014
The power of internships is undeniable. From providing real-work experience to allowing access to executives and mentors, internships are traditionally seen as the gateway to your first job.

So where does that leave the value of a college education? With students in debt over their heads and frightenly low employment rates for recent graduates, it begs the question: Is a college education worth it? And if it isn’t, are programs like internships an ample replacement?

The case for what internships should be

A recent Slate article noted that unpaid internships are, unfortunately, cheaper than the cost of college education. That is, you will lose less by taking on an unpaid internship than forking over the amount of money it typically costs for advanced learning opportunities.

internshipWhile this may be true, understand this very important point: Unpaid internships can’t provide you with the same learning experiences that paid ones can. Not only can paid opportunities help with rising student loan costs, they also provide you with better work experiences and more diverse work environments, increase your marketplace value, and amp up engagement and overall happiness.

Most importantly, paid internships provide you with protection against discrimination. While laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act exist, guidelines for internships are unclear. Technically, unpaid interns are not seen as employees, so they don’t have the same legal rights as paid interns or traditional employees. If you’re an unpaid intern faced with sexual harassment or arbitrary dismissal, guess what? You may not have a case.

College education delivers opportunities not be provided by internships

No matter what the research tells you, internships are not a replacement for a college education. Here are some reasons why:

  • Practical knowledge: While that education has been questioned over the past few years, the practical knowledge, the people you meet, and lessons you learn are invaluable experiences you can’t gain elsewhere.
  • Eligibility: Many internship programs require their interns be enrolled in an institution or have completed certain coursework in order to be eligible.
  • Educational connections: Many educational connections, which include professors and career counselors, allow you to see a different view of the professional world while you’re still learning key practices.

Instead, internships should be a supplement to that college education. When you find the correct program, internships provide you will real-work experience, access to leaders, perks, and ample skills training.

Improving the system will take work from both sides

While internships should be a supplement to a college education, the entire system needs to be improved. As a student, you need to seek out opportunities that will align with your goals, values, and career aspirations — and do your research in order to see what you can handle and what you absolutely won’t tolerate.

On the other side, your university should take a more active role in your internship experiences. If you’re among the many students who don’t know what to expect from a program, talk to your career center, visit career fairs, or even discuss your questions with your counselor. These resources can provide you with the information you need to start your search.

So, are internships a replacement for a college education? For now, they aren’t. While they can provide you with awesome on-the-job learning experiences and access to leaders, a college education is just as important. Instead, use internships as a way to hone the skills you’ve learned in college and supplement your coursework. Using both efficiently will equate to a more fulfilling professional career.

What do you think? Do you believe internships are a replacement for a college education? Why or why not?

 Ashley+MosleyAshley Mosley is the Community Engagement Manager of InternMatch, an online platform connecting the best intern candidates and employers. Connect with Ashley and InternMatch on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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