When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, thousands of college students saw their internship opportunities dry up. One estimate determined that roughly half of internships were canceled due to widespread disruptions.
At the University of North Texas, career services staff members didn't want students to miss out on the benefits these programs can afford.
An internship platform company, Parker Dewey, seemed to offer one solution. The organization provides services to help students apply to what it calls microinternships, or short-term, paid projects from employers. It's one of several companies offering virtual internship or experiential learning opportunities that saw heightened interest amid the pandemic.
But the U of North Texas partnership with Parker Dewey hasn't yet paid off for many students and alumni. So far, just three were selected to complete projects for employers through the portal, according to Jeanette Hickl, the university's senior associate director for assessment, internships, marketing and operations.
The university's experience with the platform is emblematic of a larger issue. College students nationwide are struggling to find internship opportunities even as remote jobs become more commonplace.
In a survey of nearly 10,000 students administered from November 2020 to March 2021, just 22% of respondents reported having an internship in the past 12 months. The internships were about evenly split between online and in-person jobs.
That's a "striking departure" from previous national estimates, according to the report.
More data is needed to understand the scope of the issue. "One of the things that is clear is the number of students looking for positions is outstripping the number of opportunities out there," said Matthew Hora, a higher ed professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
"One of the things that is clear is the number of students looking for positions is outstripping the number of opportunities out there."
Higher ed professor, University of Wisconsin Madison
Colleges stress the importance of internships, which can help students get a leg up in their industries. When the pandemic wiped away many of those opportunities, schools tried differing approaches to replace them, including by contracting with online platforms and creating their own programs. As the pandemic has evolved, so too have their strategies.
U of North Texas looked beyond just Parker Dewey to help fill in those gaps. The university also contracted with Forage — a rapidly growing company that partners with large corporations, including General Electric and Goldman Sachs — to create simulated projects for students to complete. The idea is to let students explore different industries through work-based learning opportunities.
"That was really the question that me and my team had," Hickl said. "How can we make sure that there are several access points for our students when it comes to internships and experiential learning?"
A booming business
Although the pandemic has decimated entire industries, it's been good for companies hoping to connect students with employers or work-based learning opportunities. That includes Forage, which launched in 2017 to give college students virtual work experiences.
For instance, a student interested in software engineering can take a five- to six-hour program from Electronic Arts where they simulate implementing a new video game and then translating it into another programming language. An offering from J.P. Morgan, on the other hand, has students pinpoint companies that could be merged or acquired to provide a better return on investment.
Forage’s bedrock — simulated and virtual projects — means it doesn't have the same limits found in internship programs, which are bound by a company's time and resources. For instance, J.P. Morgan's four courses on the platform — in software engineering, markets, investment banking and commercial banking — have seen more than 200,000 enrollments.
The health crisis has supercharged the company's growth. In the 12 months leading up to the pandemic, students enrolled in roughly 300,000 courses. But the company has had around 2 million course enrollments since the start of the pandemic alone.
Forage's projects proved popular on the U of North Texas campus as well. Since fall of 2020, some 650 students completed projects through the platform.
"Virtual is here to stay. As we emerge out of the pandemic, the big question is what makes the most sense to be virtual and what makes the most sense to be in person."
Chief education strategy officer, Handshake
Similar companies have also added new services to help college students find digital opportunities.
Handshake, for instance, is a company that helps college students and recent graduates land internships and jobs with some 550,000 employers. It also works with more than 1,000 colleges to provide the platform to their students.
During the pandemic, the company started offering virtual career fairs. The service took off; in 2020, Handshake conducted more than 3,000 of these events.
Hosting these events virtually also comes with benefits, said Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake. Employers are able to recruit a more diverse group of students because they can attend fairs to which they normally couldn't travel.
And officials expect the trend to continue in the immediate future. This fall, the company is already scheduled to run around 1,500 virtual career fairs.
"Virtual is here to stay," Cruzvergara said. "As we emerge out of the pandemic, the big question is what makes the most sense to be virtual and what makes the most sense to be in person."
Are there other approaches?
Companies like Handshake and Parker Dewey have found an eager partner in colleges. But some higher education experts warn that better ways for colleges to help students find internships will take a back seat to these platforms.
Ryan Catherwood, an alumni engagement and career services consultant at Chris Marshall Advancement Consulting, is in that group. He contended in a LinkedIn post earlier this year that by using Handshake, specifically, colleges may be promoting a job-search strategy that isn't advisable.
Catherwood argued that employers using the platform advertise their roles to hundreds of colleges, making the chances slim that a student at one university could get the job.
In a comment to the post, Cruzvergara said that students need both "access to alumni network connections and the means to build their own trusted network online through their career center." Handshake officials declined to comment further.
Catherwood recommends that students work their alumni network to find a "side door" into internship opportunities, including those that are virtual.
"That strategy of outreach to individuals — specifically alumni and organizations where students are interested in working — is a far better strategy than just going through Handshake, looking at all the virtual internships and casting them out there into the world, hoping for success," Catherwood told Higher Ed Dive.
"There's going to be more demand for this kind of flexibility in the workforce, especially among students."
Executive director, University of Maryland Center for Global Business
Hora, the higher ed professor, also recommended broader reforms. He advised colleges to bake work-based opportunities, such as capstone projects, into the curriculum so students don't have to compete for a finite number of opportunities to gain such experience.
"Until we create more positions, I don't see more college students taking an internship," Hora said.
However, some colleges are also tapping their local networks to create remote internship opportunities for students. When the pandemic first hit, the University of Maryland launched a virtual digital marketing internship in a matter of weeks.
At the time, numerous students saw their internship opportunities vanish. Meanwhile, the exporting industry was facing a crisis as the pandemic disrupted the supply chain. The university saw an opportunity to link college students with local exporters who needed interns to work on things like social media marketing and website analytics. It also got the program approved to be eligible for a grant from the state's commerce department to help partially fund the cost for employers.
The first summer, the university drew more than 100 applications and had about two-dozen students participate in the program. This summer, that number increased to about 30 students.
Despite the return to some normalcy, programs like this have sticking power.
"There's going to be more demand for this kind of flexibility in the workforce, especially among students," said Rebecca Bellinger, executive director of the Center for Global Business within the university's business school. "We're going to see more remote opportunities for companies and for students.