Thousands of canceled internships impact students—but they also hurt colleges

The next four months may be the worst career environment that college students—and college career development offices—have faced since the Great Depression. So Claremont McKenna College is giving its students an unusual edge: It’s subsidizing their internships.

The practice began several years ago, and this year CMC, a liberal arts school in Claremont, Calif., is using it more widely than ever.

“They’re called sponsored internships,” says vice president for advancement Michelle Chamberlain. “CMC provides funding, and students can say to an employer that they’ve applied for funding from CMC.”

That way the employer can reduce or eliminate what it otherwise would have paid that intern.

“This year 625 students applied for the funding, which is a record, and we’ve got $2 million of support for it,” says Chamberlain. “We’re funding 80% to 90% of these.”

That’s great, but this year it’s not good enough: Hundreds of companies across industries—Goodyear, REI, Mercedes-Benz, Southwest Airlines, Under Armour, and many others—are canceling this summer’s internship programs entirely. So CMC is expanding its own internships with faculty members and college organizations. And, in this uniquely awful year, it’s also doing something unprecedented.

“We’re expanding our internship program into the immediate postgraduate environment,” president Hiram Chodosh tells Fortune. Thanks to “a very generous anonymous donor,” he says, this spring’s grads will be eligible for a summer of training in high-value skills and potentially for financial support in low-paid or unpaid work—à la internships—until next June, up to $10,000 per quarter. As Chodosh told the class of 2020, “This funding will enable you to work for an employer who may not be able initially to hire you.”

He tells Fortune: “That puts our students in a competitive position because they won’t have to make as much to support themselves.” Regardless of whether they get hired, they’ll have “months of substantive professional experience.”

CMC’s extraordinary efforts aren’t just good for students—they’re good for CMC. The coronavirus crisis for college students is also, less visibly, a crisis for the colleges they attend. As college costs skyrocket, students and parents increasingly evaluate schools on the percentage of new graduates who get jobs and the quality of those jobs. (Niche.com reports that CMC looks good on those measures: 92% of grads are employed two years after graduation at median pay of $55,900, well above the national average.) The Princeton Review, U.S. News, London’s Times Higher Education magazine, and others publish annual job placement ratings, and school administrators can’t afford to ignore them.

Internships are a critical step in postgraduate jobs. But helping students get into attractive internships this summer after their planned internships have been canceled may be the challenge of a lifetime.

“Our career services staff are working around the clock right now,” says a spokesman for Penn State, which is highly rated for its ability to send graduates into jobs. The school is hoping its alumni will help: “Penn State has more than 700,000 alumni representing every industry and living all over the world,” the spokesman notes. And the school is reminding students of this, urging them to connect with alums through a proprietary networking platform. Many other schools with strong employability rankings, including Babson, Duke, Lehigh, and Georgia Tech, are doing the same.

But beyond engaging alumni, and rare heroic efforts like Claremont McKenna’s, there’s not a lot that schools can do in a world where tens of thousands of intern positions have evaporated. Many students will have to accept that this year an internship just might not be in the cards. Babson’s career development chief, Donna Sosnowski, says that after network mining and searching in industries that are still growing, she’s advising students to “invest in yourself and upskill” by taking online classes or getting certifications.

Even the relatively lucky students whose internships will now be virtual rather than in-person are unlikely to get the career boost that they and their schools were hoping for. Infosys, whose internship program has ranked No. 1 at Vault.com for the past two years, is announcing today that this summer’s program will be virtual. That’s undoubtedly a relief for the 200 or so students who will participate, but students in all highly rated internship programs inevitably report that the greatest value comes from the in-person experience.

“I ended up on an interesting project while walking around campus instead of waiting for the opportunity to come to me,” a previous Infosys intern says in a review on Handshake, a site that connects college students with jobs. More important, the meaningful personal connections that are crucial to any career mostly happen face-to-face. Another previous Infosys intern reports that “the best part about the experience by far was getting to meet and work with interns from around the world.” This year it won’t be the same.

Through nothing but bad luck, many of today’s college students may be disadvantaged in the years ahead as they compete with older and younger workers. But for colleges, this recession is, like all problems, an opportunity. While the raw statistics of job placement will likely be lower for practically all schools, the most important numbers will be the rankings. Career development offices will be tested like never before, and a new set of winners may emerge. One of the clearest lessons from past recessions is that they scramble the competitive order in many industries. A year or two from now, after the trauma of this year’s internship experience is over, those all-important college job-placement rankings may look very different.

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