In 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education invited 50,000 employers to participate in a study on the role of higher education in career development. One of the most remarkable results of the study was that employers valued internship experience above all other factors when hiring college graduates. In fact, internship experience was at least twice as important as college reputation, GPA, and relevance of coursework. This result has been confirmed by numerous other studies and suggests that most students are underestimating the value and importance of internship experience.
For most of the 20th century, it was common knowledge that the best way to get ahead in life was to get a college degree. Only in the last ten years has this come into question. The average cost of private college is now over $236,000 in the United States. This is a massive cost with a highly uncertain return on investment. Although the value of a college degree is unclear, an internship has proven to be the single greatest investment a student can make in their professional future.
Students are commonly paying $¼ million for their college degrees, yet employers are saying that an internship is at least twice as valuable as that degree. Based on these facts, it could be argued that the true value of a high-quality internship is over $500,000. An average professional career spans 44 years and even a 5% increase in starting salary from an internship could easily produce an additional $500,000 of earnings over a career.
For thousands of years, an internship was the preferred form of “higher education,” it just had a different name: apprenticeship. The concept that most students should receive a college degree is a relatively new one. For thousands of years, most young people gained professional skills by completing an apprenticeship. Interestingly, not only were most apprenticeships unpaid, families typically paid for their child to participate.
The hosts of apprentices required payment from the families because there are significant costs to training a young worker before they become productive. This dynamic is still true today and students who are able to gain internship experience before applying for full-time jobs can effectively eliminate an employer’s upfront training costs. For this reason, employers will almost always choose the candidate with internship experience over the candidate without.
One of the best ways to find a great internship is to look abroad. Although the United States and Europe produce most college graduates, the highest demand for graduates is found in emerging market economies. Students who travel abroad for internships are able to secure higher-level positions and learn more skills than students who only look for domestic opportunities. The combination of high economic growth abroad and huge competition at home makes interning abroad a valuable investment for any college student.