Paid Work-Based Learning Is Critical to Student Equity

A New America report found that paid work-based learning opportunities boost retention rates, but campus leaders need to do more to make them equitable.

Published September 22, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Paid Work-Based Learning Is Critical to Student Equity
Future of Learning
Photo by Stuart Cahill / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald / Getty Images

  • Paid work-based learning programs help increase retention, according to a New America report.
  • The report recommends that college leaders and policymakers ramp up funding and data collection for paid learning programs.
  • The report also recommends a $15 hourly starting wage for students in work-based learning programs.

Paid work-based learning (WBL) programs help boost both student career readiness and retention, according to a recent report by the New America think tank.

The report, which studied five programs at two-year colleges across the United States, found that paid work-based learning opportunities like internships, apprenticeships, and co-ops offer unique opportunities to students.

But New America recommended that college leaders need to focus on equity and inclusion to make the programs truly effective.

The report studied paid opportunities at Bunker Hill Community College and Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, Salt Lake Community College in Utah, and San Antonio College in Texas.

The design and scope of each paid program varied widely, but New America found many programs were based around increasing student retention — and saw results.

According to campus data, Cuyahoga Community College's Summer Internship Program, for instance, saw a 20% increase year to year in retention for students who participated, the report reads.

Unpaid Internships Hurt Students

The report notes that work-based learning opportunities "have increasingly become inequitable for certain student demographics."

"First, the perpetuation of unpaid internships limits opportunity, particularly for community college students," the report reads. "Second, unpaid internships pose a significant barrier for those who occupy multiple marginalized identities."

A policy brief released earlier this year by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin Madison stated that first-generation and low-income students "may be unable to pursue unpaid positions, thereby acting as a discriminatory gatekeeping function that exacerbates inequality."

That policy brief found that there aren't many reliable estimates on exactly how many unpaid interns there are in the United States.

“New America recommended that college leaders need to focus on equity and inclusion to make the programs truly effective.”

Roughly 30% of college students take an internship while in college, according to the brief, and between 30.8% and 58.1% of internships are unpaid. That report emphasized the need for better data on the exact number of unpaid internships and which students pursue them.

"As long as certain facts remain about the population of college students in the U.S. — that only 1 in 5 students take an internship, that 81% of students work paid jobs (NCES, 2020), that 31% were in poverty (Chen &Nunnery, 2019), and some estimate that 41% of college students are food insecure (Nikolaus et al., 2020) — the unpaid internship is either out of reach or could inflict hardship for millions of college students," that brief reads.

BestColleges previously reported that the number of college students participating in unpaid internships declined during the past decade, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Leaders Can Make Work-Based Learning Accessible

The New America report recommended four points for college leaders and state policymakers to consider in making work-based learning programs more equitable.

Conducting annual program evaluations is key, according to the report, which identified a lack of data around the long-term impact of work-based learning programs as a "significant shortcoming."

"The scarcity of high-quality student outcome data weakens accountability for achieving program goals and diminishes meaningful opportunities for program improvement," the report reads. "This issue partly stems from the fact that most WBL programs do not have the staff capacity to conduct extensive program evaluations."

Leaders also need to pay particular attention to students who've been traditionally excluded from work-based learning opportunities, including "low-income, first-generation, and racially minoritized students."

The report notes that Bunker Hill Community College eliminated grade point average cutoffs and lengthy interviews as a barrier to work-based learning — and in doing so "achieved parity in participation among college men from racially minoritized backgrounds, who now make up the second largest student subgroup."

Leaders also need to focus on student needs and implement a starting $15 hourly wage to help students who face barriers like childcare and transportation costs, according to the report.

New America recommended that policymakers increase funding for work-based learning programs in order to increase both participation and program growth.

"Community college leaders must begin to see equitable participation in paid WBL programs as both an economic justice and a racial equity issue," the report reads.