Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Boosting Academic Performance with Internships

Parker, E. T.; Kilgo, C. A.; Ezell Sheets, J. K.; and Pascarella, E. T. 2016. “The Differential Effects of Internship Participation on End-of-Fourth-Year GPA by Demographic and Institutional Characteristics.” Journal of College Student Development.


Internships are traditionally geared toward aiding student employment after graduation from college, but do they improve students’ academic abilities as well? To answer this question, the authors of this study employed a longitudinal examination of 3,301 students at 44 institutions. The authors revealed that internship participation at any point in one’s undergraduate career was associated with a powerful increase in students’ GPA at the end of the fourth year, boosting their academic performance by roughly one-quarter of a standard deviation. This is a small-to-medium effect; however, in the context of higher education research, large effects are rarely observed. This effect was more pronounced for students with lower GPAs and was not specific to students based on racial identification.


While the cause of the strong linkage between internship participation and academic performance is uncertain, the effect is still one that cannot be ignored. Perhaps these experiences clarify the applicability and utility of academic learning. Extended engagement in an area of personal interest may spur students to apply themselves more attentively to their studies. It’s even possible that novel challenges one encounters in an internship, the subsequent strategizing required to address them, and the knowledge that one can overcome such challenges may lead to greater self-efficacy and confidence among students.

What is clear is that internships appear to be beneficial for more than a student’s post-graduation outcomes. Not only do internships boost academic performance for all students, they tend to have a stronger effect for students with lower grade point averages.


Campus leaders should consider cultivating partnerships with local industries and economic sectors that align with their strongest academic programs if they have not already done so. Furthermore, they may wish to review what pathways toward internships already exist in their institution, and to examine any barriers to participation that may be in place. For example, many institutions require students to have a certain GPA in order to be considered for an internship. Given the disproportionate effects of internships on students with low GPAs, campus leaders may wish to consider relaxing or removing such barriers. Understanding the interconnected nature of the students that do and do not currently participate in internships may help reveal additional barriers to a high impact practice that has demonstrated positive outcomes for students prior to and after graduation.


Eugene T. Parker III is an associate professor of higher education administration in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas.

Cindy Ann Kilgo is an associate professor in the Center for Postsecondary Research, Educational Leadership, and Policy Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Jessica Ezell Sheets is a student success instructor and assistant director for transfer and nontraditional student support at the University of Arkansas.

Ernest T. Pascarella is an emeritus Mary Louise Peterson Professor of Higher Education at the University of Iowa.


Fernald, P., and Goldstein, G. 2013. “Advanced Internship: A High-Impact, Low-Cost, Super-Capstone Course. College Teaching, 61, 3-10.

Simons, L.; Fehr, L.; Blank, N.; Connell, H.; Georganas, D.; Fernandez, D.; and Peterson, V. 2012. “Lessons Learned from Experiential Learning: What Do Students Learn from a Practicum/Internship?” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24, 325-334.