Three weeks after Pam Eddinger arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in July 2013 to take over as president of Bunker Hill Community College, she found herself in a meeting with Bill Swanson, the then chairman and chief executive officer of Raytheon. At the time, it struck Eddinger that this was the only meeting that her predecessor, Mary Fifield, insisted on attending during the transition. There was a good reason for that. Swanson was the rare corporate leader who had gone to a community college, having spent two years at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo before transferring to California Polytechnic and graduating with a degree in engineering. He was, consequently, someone who believed in the power of two-year institutions to give students from diverse backgrounds a strong educational foundation and the skills they need to be prepared to enter the workforce.

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During the meeting, Swanson and Eddinger discussed continuing the project he and Fifield—along with a handful of other Boston-area chief executives—had begun 18 months earlier. Called Learn and Earn, the program provided paid internships for Bunker Hill students at Raytheon, Bank of America, and other large corporations. The idea was to make Massachusetts’s economy more competitive and give the students, most of whom came from lower-income backgrounds, access to local companies that typically recruit from elite schools. Swanson and the other business leaders had studied “co-ops” at places like Northeastern University, where undergraduates spend three or six months doing paid work for employers in jobs that align with their course work—and often receive full-time job offers from those employers after graduation. “We saw that the ability to learn in the classroom and then get practical experience was a very powerful combination,” Swanson told me. “When you get that link—when you’re working and you’re getting an education—the education becomes more valuable to you because you see the applicability to your job.”

By the time Eddinger got to campus, Learn and Earn was gaining momentum and a handful of students had already gone on to land positions with the companies they interned for. During her meeting with Swanson, Eddinger promised to double the size of the program to signal her support for it. At the time, roughly 30 students a year were participating. It took until 2019, when the college added two staff members to coordinate the internships, for the number to increase to 60. But the lag wasn’t just a personnel issue. Administrators had set up an arduous screening process that sometimes included up to four interviews before a student would be placed with an employer. “We were so careful about wanting to send students who would succeed out in the field,” Eddinger said. “What that ended up [being] was a barrier.” They also began hearing that students of color and female students were having trouble accessing the program. Internal numbers showed that males were overrepresented and women and people of color were underrepresented. 

A leader who listens: Bunker Hill President Pam Eddinger reached out to underrepresented students to learn how her school’s paid internship program could better serve them. Credit: Courtesy of Brendan Hughes/Bunker Hill Community College

After seeing the data and talking with students, Eddinger felt they needed to change the way they were doing things. Over the next two years, she and her team retooled Learn and Earn and made the program more accessible to women and people of color. How they managed to do so is an important story—especially now, as America’s often dysfunctional college-to-job pipeline is gaining attention from policy makers on both sides of the aisle.

Eddinger didn’t need much convincing to support Learn and Earn. The program, she thought, wasn’t just a way to teach basic career literacy skills like how to craft a cover letter, write a professional email, or divvy up tasks on a team, though that was important. It was also a bridge connecting the “last mile” between college and employment—the steps that are necessary for getting a job but don’t “automatically appear for everyone,” as Eddinger put it. 

Solutions to getting students, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, through that “last mile” have proved elusive on a system-wide scale. The issue lives in a policy gray area, making it easy for the two main players—colleges and employers—to slough off responsibility. 

Beginning in the early 1980s, as employment-for-life began to disappear and the workforce became more mobile, businesses became increasingly less willing to invest in training new employees and transferred that burden to the education system. At the same time, the contraction of the manufacturing sector was accelerating, wiping out jobs that required only a high school diploma. Postsecondary education became the price of admission for a middle-class life as jobs in the technology, health care, finance, and service sectors became a bigger part of the economy. But colleges, which had traditionally been focused inward on academic achievement, were by and large slow to expand their definition of student success beyond the grades they got in the classroom. 

Middle- and upper-middle-class students figured out long ago that the key to overcoming this dilemma was to take an internship. Doing so allowed them to pick up job-specific skills that were unlikely to be taught in college and to make connections that could lead to a job offer from that firm or a similar one. Prestigious four-year colleges institutionalized that practice by creating portfolios of companies that would come directly to campus to recruit and some, like Northeastern University, promoted “experiential learning” programs in which students spent a portion of their sophomore, junior, or senior year working full-time, usually in their field of study.

The issue, of course, is that these solutions are only readily available to students affluent enough to be able to take unpaid or minimum-wage internships. (More than 40 percent of internships are unpaid, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.) Not being able to take an internship is a double disadvantage for low-income, first-generation students, who often don’t have family members who can give them insight into professional career paths or connections to high-paying employers the way students from middle-class and wealthier families do. 

The process Eddinger and her team used to make Learn and Earn work better for women and people of color was simple: They talked to them. What they discovered were economic and cultural barriers that required very hands-on and tailored interventions to overcome. 

For instance, one student who was working in the college’s business office as an assistant to a staff accountant and who was graduating with an accounting degree told Austin Gilliland, dean of professional studies, that he didn’t think he qualified for a Learn and Earn internship. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. Why don’t you think you’re qualified? Why aren’t these things on your résumé?’ ” Gilliland told me. “And he said to me that it was against his culture to brag about his accomplishments.” 

Understanding that many students were unsure of themselves or reluctant to step forward, Bunker Hill, where approximately one-third of students are the first in their family to go to college, changed the recruiting process. They removed the grade point average requirement because it discourages poorer students, who typically come from less academically rigorous high schools and often struggle with grades in their first year of college. (See Rob Wolfe, “The Invisible College Barrier”.) And administrators worked with companies to rewrite job postings so they aligned with course descriptions. Then, instead of sending a generic email to all students in a particular major informing them of internship opportunities, they started crafting personalized messages stressing an individual student’s qualifications. A computer science major, for instance, now receives a note about a programing internship that says something like “ ‘We think you can do this internship because you’ve taken CSC 236 SQL programming, and that’s what this job requires,’ ” Gilliland, who oversees Learn and Earn, explained. “We sort of took that self-selection piece out of it and said, ‘We know you have the skills because you’ve done this training with us.’ ”

Administrators also discovered that many students weren’t interested in careers in banking and tech or at a defense contractor—the types of companies that initially participated in Learn and Earn. Instead, they aspired to work for small businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and other mission-driven organizations. This presented two problems for the staff. First, they didn’t have many intern placement relationships with such employers. Second, those organizations typically don’t have the funds to offer decent wages. 

Eddinger and her colleagues addressed the second problem by tapping into an anonymous family foundation specifically to support intern wages. To solve the first, Gilliland’s team set about diversifying the types of organizations that were participating in the program. 

These adjustments opened the doors of Learn and Earn to students like Julia Soriano. A first-generation college student, Soriano interned as a customer service representative with All In Energy, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing renewable energy to low-income communities in eastern Massachusetts while also diversifying the talent pool in the field. The experience taught her how to communicate in a business environment, work on a team, and conduct meetings remotely. After graduating in May 2021 with an associate’s degree in accounting, Soriano got a full-time job at All In, working in their accounting department. She expects to receive her bachelor’s degree in communications and logistics from Southern New Hampshire University next June. 

Low-income, first-generation students often don’t have family members who can provide insight into professional career paths or connections to high-paying employers the way students from middle-class and wealthier families do.

For Mackenzie Ensley, a fine arts student who enrolled in Bunker Hill in September 2020, the idea of working in a museum was so unfamiliar that she hesitated to apply to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum internship. “When I picture museums, I picture the part of the art world that intimidates me,” she told me. “I didn’t know if I could be in a position where I would need to know a lot of things about the materials the art was made out of or the solvents used to fix the pieces.” But a Bunker Hill staff member helped Ensley figure out which museum departments to apply to based on her course work and brainstormed potential interview questions—support that gave Ensley confidence she could be successful. (Ensley wound up working in the Gardner’s conservation department, learning how to write treatment proposals and condition reports—an experience that led her to pursue art conservation as a career.)

As Bunker Hill administrators expanded the program to new employers, however, they also had to educate some of them about the value of accepting interns from different backgrounds and how to treat them. A second museum, which had to be convinced to set aside slots for Bunker Hill students, asked applicants to describe what excited them about visiting the galleries. That was problematic, Eddinger said, because it presumed that the students had the money to go there in the first place. Some students also reported that managers were treating them differently than their peers from four-year institutions, giving them menial tasks rather than meaningful assignments, not including them in important meetings, or making comments that made them feel like they didn’t belong.

“It’s really trying to change the culture both inside and outside the college,” Eddinger said, noting that three-quarters of her students are in the two lowest income quintiles and about 60 percent are parents. “If we truly are going to be a city of diverse values, it comes down to how we embrace the next workforce.” Central to this is recognizing that community colleges offer rigorous postsecondary education and serve a talented pool of potential employees who have both the academic and cultural competencies that will help businesses thrive. “A lot of people say they want diversity and what they want is really white adjacency,” she added. “Those are different things.”

College graduates with a paid internship on their résumé have an average starting salary of $52,000—44 percent more than those with an unpaid internship. Those without an internship earned $37,000.

Another obstacle Learn and Earn administrators discovered was that even though the internships they were offering pay well—between $18 and $40 an hour—many students were reluctant to take them for the simple reason that they already had a job. Giving up steady income for temporary work experience often doesn’t make short-term financial sense, especially if you have children. In fact, it’s a risk that could potentially lead to a student dropping out if they give up their employment and can’t find another job after the internship is over. Relatedly, changes in routine that might seem small, like figuring out how to get to an internship that’s far from the bus line that runs through your neighborhood, can seem insurmountable—especially when a student is adding another responsibility on top of course work, a delicate child care balance, or dealing with housing insecurity.

To navigate these issues, Bunker Hill provides a variety of “wraparound” services to all its students. These include mental health counseling, domestic violence resources, a food pantry, and advisers to help students with everything from creating manageable schedules to switching course sections if, for example, they lose their babysitter and can no longer come to class on a certain day of the week. 

The Learn and Earn program has an additional layer of support in the form of a weekly class, led by a professor, for students to talk about the challenges they face in their internships. In those sessions, problems like not being sure how to respond to a supervisor’s email or how to handle a colleague who is treating you disrespectfully are worked through. Julia Soriano said these weekly meetings were crucial to her success. At the beginning of her paid internship, she felt overwhelmed. Her work with All In was taking up 20 hours a week on top of studying for two classes and taking care of two children at home. “By having a class every week, it was kind of like a reminder of, what are the goals you want to accomplish? What are the things we learned this week?” Soriano told me. “By sharing all of that and hearing the other students, that kept me on track to succeed in this internship. I stopped thinking I was the only one feeling this way or not getting things. It was a reminder that there is still time to develop our skills.” 

Over time, through sustained outreach, Bunker Hill has been able to bring more female and minority students into the program. This past academic year, the percentage of students of color matched its share in the school as a whole, and women in the program exceeded their proportion in the student body overall.

The college doesn’t have data, however, on how many Learn and Earn students get jobs after graduation—either at companies they interned with or elsewhere—and at what salary. Administrators started formally tracking that information this academic year, but it is notoriously hard to compile because there’s no central way to collect it. They have to continuously check with employers and alumni to get a handle on who is working where, an imprecise and labor-intensive process.

Despite the limitations with the data, there is evidence that paid internships lead to better professional outcomes. According to the 2021 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) student survey, students who took paid internships received an average of 1.12 job offers while unpaid interns got an average of .85 offers. Those with no internship experience got .64 job offers, on average. 

Whether you have internship experience also affects your starting salary. A study by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that college graduates with a paid internship on their résumé had on average a starting salary of $52,000—44 percent more than those who took an unpaid internship. Those who had no internship had a $37,000 starting salary on average. In fact, previous NACE research showed a negative correlation between unpaid internships and starting salaries.

Bunker Hill isn’t the only two-year institution working to bring experiential learning to its students in a way that makes sense for their lives. The Alamo Colleges District—a group of five community colleges in the greater San Antonio, Texas, area—also offers internships paid for by the school. Its program includes workshops to familiarize students with the employers they are applying to, help with résumé writing, and work on reference requests. Though the program is just one year old, more than 1,000 students have participated in these internships, and administrators are setting aside $2 million of their operating budget to expand the opportunity. Cuyahoga Community College, in northeastern Ohio, has a summer internship program that allows students to either work on campus or for an outside employer, at $11 an hour. The college also covers tuition for up to four credits and a $125 book stipend for the class. The idea, says Sandy McKnight, associate vice president of access, learning, and success at Cuyahoga, is to keep students engaged over the summer so they will return to complete their degree. 

Serving Boston’s non-Brahmins: Bunker Hill’s paid internships are designed to give students from modest backgrounds the same connections to employers that affluent students at elite four-year colleges enjoy. Credit: Courtesy of Brendan Hughes/Bunker Hill Community College

That community colleges like Alamo District and Bunker Hill can find the cash to support paid internships is something of an anomaly. Most exist on very thin budgets. The average two-year school spends half as much, or less, per student as the average four-year state college, and far less than elite private universities. Even with the help of the Boston area’s corporate sector and a family foundation behind it, Bunker Hill lacks enough funding to offer a paid internship to everyone who wants one, to hire the staff necessary to do the hands-on work, and to provide the wraparound social services needed to make it possible for more students to take advantage of the internships. Though Learn and Earn has grown—from 20 students per year in 2012 to 116 per year today—for a campus of 16,000 the program remains tiny.

It’s clear that paid internship programs like Learn and Earn are unlikely to grow to scale and spread to more campuses without greater outside funding. (See Jamaal Abdul-Alim, “A Job and a College Degree Before You Graduate High School” .) In February 2020, the Department of Education took a modest step when it gave 190 schools waivers allowing them to pay for work study jobs with private-sector employers as an experiment. This meant that colleges like Alamo, which participated in the pilot, could let their students work at an outside job aligned with their field of study rather than for the university checking IDs at the gym. Though the program has continued under President Joe Biden’s administration, it is slated to end after the 2022–23 academic year. Last year’s Build Back Better reconciliation bill included tens of billions of new dollars for community colleges, including for wraparound services like child care. The bill collapsed last winter because every GOP senator and a couple of Democrats, most prominently West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, refused to vote for it, and though a slimmed-down version passed the Senate and was awaiting a House vote when this issue went to press in mid-August, it contained little money for higher education. Yet, given growing Republican support, at least rhetorically, for vocational programs, there could be bipartisan movement for more funding for community colleges after the midterm elections. 

While it waits for help from policy makers, Bunker Hill will continue to expand Learn and Earn and bring more students and potential employers together through paid internships. It’s the right thing to do, Eddinger said, because it’s a tool for retention and college completion and gives an economic lift to her students. She just wishes lawmakers would see it that way. “It’s a failure of public vision, and it’s a failure of public policy. There’s no other way to say it.”

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Laura Colarusso is the senior editor of Nieman Reports, an online and quarterly magazine devoted to raising the standards of journalism. She was previously the digital managing editor of WGBH News in Boston.