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  • The Differential Effects of Internship Participation on End-of-Fourth-Year GPA by Demographic and Institutional Characteristics
  • Eugene T. Parker III (bio), Cindy A. Kilgo (bio), Jessica K. Ezell Sheets (bio), and Ernest T. Pascarella (bio)

Recent college graduates face more uncertainty in finding employment today than they have in the past (Spreen, 2013). Colleges and universities encourage students to participate in internships to increase their employment potential. Participation in internships is one of 10 practices that the Association of American Colleges and Universities has designated as “high-impact” for their promise in fostering engagement, persistence, and learning among undergraduate students (Brownell & Swaner, 2010; Kuh, 2008). Although no consensus for the definition of internship exists, O’Neill (2010) suggests that internships are generally experiential learning opportunities that include reflection, onsite guidance, and the ability to gain exposure to a career a student is considering in a real-world setting. Despite the rising popularity of internships and other high-impact practices in college curricula and cocurricula, until recently, little empirical research had been conducted to confirm anecdotal evidence suggesting the power of this educational experience for student learning (Brownell & Swaner, 2010).


Prior research on internships confirms the long-held belief that internship participation offers students an advantage in the job market (Jones, 2002; Keller, 2012) as well as other work-related skills such as students’ increased understandings of the types of jobs that are good matches for them (Brooks, Cornelius, Greenfield, & Joseph, 1995; Fernald & Goldstein, 2013; Jones, 2002; Keller, 2012) and students’ increased confidence in navigating their workplaces (Fernald & Goldstein, 2013; Keller, 2012; Simons et al., 2012). In addition, recent studies have demonstrated that participation in internships has been associated with students’ enhanced interpersonal skills such as listening (Fernald & Goldstein, 2013), collaborating with peers (Fernald & Goldstein, 2013; Jones, 2002; Miller, Rycek, & Fritson, 2011), communication skills (Jones, 2002), multicultural skills (Simons et al., 2012), and time management skills (Simons et al., 2012), as well as students’ academic growth as measured by improved critical thinking skills (Jones, 2002), perceived learning gains (Finley & McNair, 2013), and cumulative GPA (Knouse, Tanner, & Harris, 1999).

In a study testing the impact of high-impact practices on liberal arts educational outcomes, Kilgo, Sheets, and Pascarella (2015) found that participation in internships was positively [End Page 104] associated with several college outcomes, including increased need for cognition (i.e., how much one enjoys thinking and cognitive activities), intercultural effectiveness, and socially responsible leadership. A follow-up study exploring the conditional, or interaction, effects of participation in an internship and being a student of color found that participation in an internship was the only high-impact practice tested that had a positive and significant effect on need for cognition for students of color as compared to White students (Kilgo et al., 2014). A limitation of the Kilgo et al. (2014) study was that, due to a low number of students of color in the sample, they were unable to disaggregate students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds, so it was unclear whether differences existed among distinctive racial and ethnic groups in the benefits received from internship participation. A study by Fischer (2007) found differences in predictors of GPA according to race, suggesting the importance of considering the impact of participation on racial groups individually. Absent from the literature, however, is consideration of how students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds may affect internship participation outcomes, particularly academic ones.

Grade point average in particular is important to examine for students participating in internships, due to both its link to retention (see Bean, 2005) and the link between retention and gainful employment. While the rationale for internships is focused on career-related outcomes, GPA plays an essential role in the link between internship participation and the job market. While internship experiences often have GPA requirements, we feel it is essential to examine the effects of internships on end-of-fourth-year GPA.


We employ Astin’s (1993) I-E-O Model to explain how students develop in college as a result of participation in internships. The “I” refers to inputs, or what students bring to college in terms of background characteristics and experiences. The “E” stands for environment—specifically, the college environment...