06/06/2014 02:28 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Invest in Interns

Internships are a unique bridge between our system of higher education and our workforce. That bridge is more important today than ever, yet colleges and employers, concerned by recent lawsuits by unpaid interns over Fair Labor practices, are making the unfortunate choice to pull back rather than to improve and to expand internship opportunities.

In the last ten years, the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW) has supported over 500 women who are working as summer interns by granting money for stipends. We have seen these grants benefit not only students but also the offices where they work and the schools they attend. Independent research is beginning to confirm our reasons for adopting this strategic priority.

Internships prepare students for the work force, give them an advantage in seeking jobs after graduation, and may provide benefits beyond the first job. The recent Gallup poll of U.S. business leaders found that a majority believe college graduates lack the skills and competencies their businesses require. Through internships, students acquire workplace competencies that cannot be learned in a classroom or most afterschool jobs. "These skills are essential to getting ahead," says Dr. Shyama Venkateswar, Director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College. "Through internships, my students learn how to navigate an office environment. They see what is appropriate professional dress and communication. They practice thinking on their feet, managing deadlines, and improving their analytic skills."

These benefits may last long past the first job. According to a May survey conducted by Gallup and Purdue University, college graduates who held an internship or job in college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were twice as likely to be engaged in their work. They also experienced a greater sense of well-being: a measure that includes a sense of purpose, financial security, strong and supportive relationships and good health.

Internships help schools satisfy new expectations for employment outcomes and improved rates of retention. Increasingly, schools are under scrutiny for the performance of their graduates in the job market. The White House will soon rank colleges using a formula that takes into account tuition prices, completion rates, and the earnings of their graduates. While we don't know if internships can directly boost the earnings of college graduates, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has found that nearly 50% of employers wish to see an internship on student resumes. Early research on the connection between internships and retention is also encouraging. The Association of American Colleges and Universities identifies internships as a "high impact" educational practice that can increase student retention and engagement.

This month, thousands of students will begin summer internships. Many will work without pay, and many of those will be women. While little research exists on gender and internships, a study by Intern-Bridge found that female interns were 75% more likely than male interns to work for free. How many more students--talented qualified students who may stand the most to gain from the experience--will lose out because they cannot afford to work without pay?

Social entrepreneurs and philanthropists seek out under-leveraged situations to maximize the effect of their investment. Helping students financially so that they can work at substantive, unpaid internships is a small investment that can generate returns to a student, her school and her employer that may last beyond a single summer. "I love my job," a recent graduate reported, "and I owe it to my summer as an intern. It pointed me to an industry I would not have otherwise considered and to an employer who hired me after graduation. This would not have happened without financial support."