Opinion: Getting that college degree isn’t enough anymore; quality internships are essential

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According to last year's report on child well-being by the Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth, 16.8% of Hamilton County's kids live in poverty — around 12,800 kids under the age of 18. This is a higher poverty rate than the population overall and a troubling signal for our future.

At the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, we work on understanding the root causes of chronic poverty and look for tools to break these cycles. We know that higher education can be one particularly effective such tool.

Even so, the economics of higher education do not seem to favor working and middle-class families right now. Surveys of teens and their families have been consistently clear: A college degree is seen as expensive without a sufficient return, despite the clear earning advantages enjoyed by college graduates.

Another pernicious crisis at work: a significant portion of college graduates are underemployed. This means they are working, but in roles that don't require a degree or make full use of their skills.

The Community Foundation's donors understand this and are fighting this battle with us on two fronts:

First, direct financial aid remains essential. In 2023 alone, our supporters enabled us to grant 257 scholarships to local high schoolers, totaling nearly $1.5 million. Second, it means that new and more sophisticated internships are essential.

Not all internships are created equal, of course, and quality internships are not evenly distributed. Limited social networks ironically mean that many students simply will not learn about potential internships. For others, financial constraints make unpaid internships unfeasible if they need to work.

The Community Foundation is committed to doing its part to address this. We identify viable internship opportunities in our community and we engage and pay our own interns.

Employers can take more steps to bridge these divides for young adults. We would ask all Chattanooga businesses, large and small, to consider the following:

1. How can your organization expand access to work-based learning opportunities, including virtual internships, to reach more students? If this is not yet part of your company's DNA, figure out how you might start.

2. Are you willing to integrate learning experiences related to your company into academic curricula at local educational institutions? If so, with which institutions are you willing to partner?

3. What type of financial support are you providing your interns, particularly those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds?

4. If a full, semester-long internship is out of the question for your business, can you implement "micro-internships" that offer short-term, project-based work experiences for students?

5. Finally, is your company willing to partner with nonprofit organizations to develop structured internship programs that provide meaningful work experiences to economically disadvantaged students? As an employer, you are not expected to be intimately familiar with every neighborhood or population segment in Chattanooga, but that shouldn't stop you from looking harder to find great talent. The Community Foundation can be your partner in finding these connections.

Simply put, getting to and through college is no longer enough. A complete higher education now means both classroom instruction and valuable internships; employers, donors, and colleges share the responsibility of making sure these elements work together. For thousands of hard-working young people, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty depends on it.

Dr. Stephanie Young is the director of scholarships for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. She can be reached at SYoung@cfgc.org.

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