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USACollegeChat Podcast

Sep 7, 2017

Welcome back from the Labor Day holiday and welcome back to school for those of you living in the Northeast, where the very last kids to start back reside. And welcome back to our series, Researching College Options, where we have spent the last three episodes talking about the academic hurdles that kids will meet in trying to get into a college. Those hurdles are, first, SAT and ACT scores of competing applicants; second, average high school grade point average (GPA) of competing applicants; and third, courses that all applicants are expected to have taken in high school, usually listed in terms of credits (or Carnegie units) in each subject area, but also sometimes including specific courses, especially in math and science. To repeat from our previous episodes, all three of these academic standards matter at most of the nation’s most selective four-year colleges, and high school GPAs and high school courses taken actually matter at virtually all of our nation’s four-year colleges.

When we talked about high school courses taken (in Episode 133), we said that this is something you could probably still fix if your kid is just starting back to school now for his or her senior year. Yes, your kid’s fall semester courses were likely chosen some time ago, but changes can be made in most high schools as classes start if there is an important enough reason--and, clearly, meeting college entrance requirements is an important enough reason. Parents of younger students, we told you that you still have time to have a major effect on the high school courses your kid will take in the next couple of years, and you should absolutely start looking at entrance requirements now--before it is too late. Go back and listen to Episode 133 to find out why and how.

In today’s episode, we want to talk to all of you parents about something else that you can still influence--something else that will improve your kid’s college application, to be sure, but that will also just simply improve your kid. It’s not a new topic for us, and we hope it will sound familiar to you, too.

As we turn to today’s topic, let us remind you, one more time, to give your kid our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, designed to help students get the information that they need to make good choices about where to apply. We will talk more about the book in a few weeks--when you all are getting really nervous about those unfinished college applications.

1. What About Internships?

But now, we want to take you all the way back to Episodes 16 and 17, when we first talked to our audience about the topic of internships. I imagine that many of you listeners were not with us then since we had only just begun our podcast. Or, perhaps you had kids who were younger then and not yet in the throes of college applications. So, I think this bears repeating. Let us start with some internship basics and then talk about a new research study that offers some very interesting new evidence about the value of internships--especially for certain students. So, stay tuned.

Let us say first and foremost that students who have had internships in high school almost universally say that their internship was one of the most valuable learning experiences they ever had. And, from another perspective, their adult supervisors at the workplace almost universally say that having the student intern was a great experience for the organization as well. Undoubtedly, some students might be unprepared academically or socially for an internship, and some organizations might be unprepared to use an intern effectively. But, when a student is prepared and the organization is welcoming, an internship is a well-documented way of helping a student acquire some of the skills that he or she will need in real life, both in college and in a career.

Unlike many innovative programs brought into schools in the past century, there is simply no downside to student internships. About 40 years ago, my nonprofit organization started evaluating internship programs that were funded by government grants and operated by individual school districts, colleges, and nonprofit organizations. Every single program we studied offered great results for students and received high marks from the adults involved--both in the workplace and in the schools. We never evaluated any kind of innovative program that was more effective or more universally liked.

One of the best ones I ever saw was then called the Executive High School Internship Program, and it was used in many school districts. It placed students in executive internships--that is, students worked with executives in various professional fields. Back in the late 1970s, we did an evaluation of the Executive High School Internship Program in the Montgomery County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. At that time, the program placed students in, specifically, public administration internships--for example, working with County government officials. It was a really interesting idea, I always thought.

I searched for Executive High School Internships while I was preparing this episode and found a version of the program still offered in Montgomery County at the Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Since almost nothing innovative lasts in education for 40 years, I am thinking that those administrators and parents and students in Montgomery County agreed with our highly favorable evaluation all those years ago. Here is an excerpt from the Walter Johnson High School website today:

The Executive Internship Program is a rigorous, high-quality profession-focused academic program. This program allows students to explore and clarify career options in a chosen area of academic interest. Students are required to use verbal, analytical, questioning, and writing skills while participating in their internship. The general expectations of the workplace will be followed throughout the experience. All students enrolled in this program should gain personal and professional experience that will assist them in meeting their lifetime goals. An internship enables students to identify a field of interest, observe and participate in related professional activities, and understand a chosen profession’s requirements and culture. This will help a student determine if a profession is compatible with his interests, values, skills, and aptitudes. Students will integrate academic knowledge [into] a professional setting and apply that acquired knowledge to a variety of experiences. Students will develop interpersonal communication skills, advance their social skills, and mature in their personal habits as a function of working in a professional environment.

The internship is a semester-long elective course completed during the school day or after school. The student receives honors elective credit . . . . (quoted from the website)

So, kudos to the Executive High School Internship Program and its legacy.

Marie and I can tell you countless stories of high school students’ internship experiences and how effective they are--from working in a prestigious architecture firm in Manhattan to working in a small, full-service advertising agency to working in technology support at a City University of New York college campus to working in a neighborhood children’s clothing store to working in a large engineering company, where one of our students actually solved a problem that the engineers were having trouble with. These are all stories from the internships our students had at the high school we co-founded in Brooklyn. Our Early College engineering- and architecture-focused high school was started in conjunction with NAF (formerly known as the National Academy Foundation and now going just by its acronym), a nonprofit organization that supports the programming of 675 career academies in high schools in 36 states, serving over 96,000 students. A formal internship is a key part of the NAF academy model.

So, if your high school has a formal internship program, get your kid into it. It looks great on those college applications because it is evidence that your kid has shown commitment over time, dependability, responsibility, initiative, and appropriate social skills in a real workplace environment. While these skills are all great for some future career, they are also equally important for success in college. Just think about it. And don’t forget, an internship might be an excellent source of college application essay material and an excellent source of additional college recommendation letters, if needed.

If your high school does not have a formal internship program, you can help your kid seek out an internship on his or her own--after school or on weekends (by the way, parents of younger kids, you still have summer options available to you). Ideally, you would have your kid look for an internship in a career field of interest and/or in a prospective college major field of interest in an organization where a responsible adult would agree to supervise and mentor your kid. (By the way, college applications often have an essay about why the student is interested in the major he or she has declared. An internship in the field is a great thing to write about in those essays.)

We are not saying that getting an internship on your own is particularly easy to do or that your kid won’t have to compete with college students, who are also looking for internships and who might be more qualified and/or at least more mature. However, we are saying that an internship experience with personal adult mentoring is priceless and worth the headache of trying to find one. Using whatever personal connections you might have at work, through friends, at your place of worship, or elsewhere might be your best chance of helping your kid find an internship.

Just a note: Some internships are paid, and some are unpaid. For example, NAF strongly believes that internships should be paid. To be sure, paid internships are a better simulation of the actual world of work and increase the likelihood that the student will be taken seriously by the adults on the job. Nonetheless, internships are such a good experience for students that we would argue that an unpaid internship experience is still worth it, and being able to accept an unpaid internship will definitely make it easier to find one.

2. The New Case for Internships

Now, I didn’t need any more evidence to tell me how valuable internships are. But, I was happy to find some while reading an August 29 article by Sarah Sparks at the Inside School Research blog at Education Week. She refers to a research report by the Urban Institute, which evaluated a high school program that provided mentorships, six-week professional career skills training, and a senior-year internship. The report looked, about two years after high school, at just over 1,000 students who had applied to the program in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Some of the applicants were put into the program (through random assignment), and some made up the control group. They were about average students (with an average high school junior year cumulative GPA of 2.7), and about 89 percent were African American and typically lived in “economically distressed” neighborhoods. 

The report is entitled Pathways After High School: Evaluation of the Urban Alliance High School Internship Program, and it is authored by Brett Theodos, Mike Pergamit, Devlin Hanson, Sara Edelstein, Rebecca Daniels, and Tanaya Srini. Here are some findings:

  • Students in the program self-reported that they were more comfortable filling out the FAFSA and applying for other scholarships than students in the control group.
  • Male students in the program were more likely to graduate from high school than male students in the control group.
  • Male students in the program were more likely to apply to college than male students in the control group.
  • Male students who completed the program were 23 percentage points more likely to attend college than male students in the control group.
  • Male students who completed the program were 21 percentage points more likely to earn a two-year degree or be in college in their third year after high school graduation than male students in the control group.
  • Male students in the program were significantly more comfortable with their own “soft skills” (e.g., “speaking with adult coworkers, writing professional e-mails, making presentations, dressing professionally, completing work assignments on time and getting to work on time”) after one year out of high school and even more comfortable after two years out of high school.
  • The program shifted students with middling high school GPAs from attending two-year colleges to attending four-year colleges.

So, if you are the parent of an African-American male high school student, the data say that you should get him into an internship program, especially if he is just an average student. Of course, we believe that the rest of you should also get your kids into internship programs, because, as we said earlier, there is just no downside. You will be glad you did when it comes time for your kid to fill out those college applications, but you will also be glad you did when it comes time for your kid to function at college during the academic year and in the workplace during the summers.

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