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High School Internship Boosts College-Going for Boys of Color, Study Finds

Mentoring young men of color with professional work experience can significantly boost their likelihood of graduating and going on to college—but only if you can get them to prioritize the job program over other high school activities.

That's one takeaway of the Urban Institute's final evaluation of the Urban Alliance High School Internship program, which was launched in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. under the federal Social Innovation Fund. The program, which combines college-and-career mentorship with six-week professional career-skills training and a senior-year internship, led to higher college-going and employment rates for boys who completed it. But the program had high attrition, and girls seemed to fare equally well with or without the supports.

Getting practical job experience helped students develop more concrete aspirations for college, according to  Brett Theodos, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, who conducted the evaluation. 

"If you ask high schoolers what they plan to do with their lives, everyone says they want to go to college and be a doctor, a lawyer, a CSI-style forensic investigator," Theodos said, "but even in their senior year, we got pretty big divergences between what students said they wanted to do, and what they actually did."

The internship program increased all participants' comfort in filling out college and financial aid applications, and it increased male students' probability of graduating high school and going on to college. Young men who had participated in the internship program were 23 percentage points more likely than those in the control group to attend college, 78 percent versus only 55 percent for men in the control group. Participating men also were 21 percentage points more likely to have earned an associate degree or to still be enrolled in a third year of college three years after high school.

By contrast, about 70 percent of the young women in the study, both participants and those in the control group, attended college. The study did not find differences in how male or female students were targeted or served in the program, but in general, the female students in the control group were more likely to succeed than male students. 

Prioritizing a Student's Schedule

The evaluation tracked more than 1,000 students who applied to be part of the Alliance program; nearly 90 percent were black and two thirds were women. The internship progam targeted mostly minority, lower-income students who were generally in the middle of the road academically, with grade point averages of around 2.7 out of 5.

About 70 percent of students who applied for the program reported they had some work experience, but Theodos found for the most part that meant baby-sitting, serving as a camp counselor or doing informal summer jobs. "They had at least some exposure to the world of work, but that doesn't mean they were attached to a world of work that is more professional," he said. 

The students who applied were randomly assigned to participate in the program or not, but in order to be matched for a paid internship, the students had to complete six weeks of job-skills training. It proved a heavy lift for many students; only 49 percent of those who were assigned to the program completed the training, and another 8 percent did not complete their internship. Students with GPAs above 2.0 were about 20 percent more likely to complete the program than students with lower grades. 

The attrition led the Urban Alliance to reconsider how it negotiates students' schedules with their schools, Theodos said. "[Students] sign up in the spring and when they get to fall, they realize the school has changed their schedule and they can't get an early release, or they want to be on the cheerleading team and it practices at the same time," he said. "It's their senior year of high school, so it's a legitimate problem to ask a teenager to plan several months in advance."

Building Career Skills

However, completing the training was associated with better retention of job-related skills a year later—from soft skills like communicating with colleagues to hard skills like understanding Microsoft Excel and other programs. "These things are very difficult to measure and to measure well, and on the other hand, these are the things that really make or break whether someone is able to succeed at their job," Theodos said.

It made a difference for William Bates, now a senior at Bowie State University in Maryland. He joined the program as an 11th grader at the Baltimore Talent Development High School and through it, interned at Wells Fargo bank in Baltimore, where he said he organized catering and other administrative tasks for meetings and helped support employees learning to use new computer programs. 

"Before being in the program, I didn't really have much information and wasn't exposed to anything in a work environment: How to give a firm handshake. How to dress properly. ... I learned to tie a tie at the program," Bates said. "I remember at one point we did elevator pitches, and that is something I still use to this day to help me in speaking to people I've never met before in different interactions around the office."

At the end of his high school internship, Bates was asked to stay on at Wells Fargo, and he is now pursuing a degree in accounting for a job at the company. 

The apprenticeship program has since been expanded to Chicago and northern Virginia schools through a separate federal Education Innovation and Research grant, but those schools are not included in the current evaluation. 

"These positive results will enable us to grow our program and serve more youth by expanding their idea of what is possible for them after high school—and that is our ultimate goal," said Eshauna Smith, the chief executive officer of Urban Alliance, in a statement on the study.

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