Unpaid internships create inequality
By Dalya Romaner
“Wanted: summer interns. Full-time. Unpaid. Useful industry experience, great resume builder, life lessons. Unpaid or college credit only.”
College students see this kind of listing constantly. In our search for summer internships, we face the challenge of whether to choose experience or money. Unfortunately, most students cannot afford to prioritize anything over money. All we want is to spend time in our desired field, learn something and hopefully get paid. Is that too much to ask? Companies across the country offer spectacular internship opportunities that could change a student’s life and send them on a path to success. However, like fancy cars, private planes and luxury vacations, these internships are only suitable for people who can afford them. Unpaid college internships often act as a barrier to students rather than the opportunity they are meant to be, and universities are complicit in this problem.
In my exhaustive six-month search for an internship, I found one paid opportunity. I understand that if I were a business or engineering student, almost every internship would be paid, but I am neither. As an advertising student, countless agencies offer internship programs, but after applying to more than 10 agencies, none appeared to compensate interns. This problem applies not only to advertising students, but also to most college majors. Some internships offered “college credit” only. These unpaid or college credit internships were mostly full-time, and all claimed that compensation came in the form of experience. This is just another way of saying, “We’ll exploit you because you’re desperate to put our company name on your resume.” Why such a harsh assertion? Let’s break down what “unpaid” and “college-credit” really mean.
An unpaid internship is the same thing as volunteer work, but you can get fired and you’re often expected to spend all of your time doing it. It’s not out of the goodness of your heart, but rather because you want to learn and get ahead in your future career. College students are regularly told by college counselors that their only choice is an unpaid internship because that’s the only internship available. In doing so, universities fail to stand up for their students. Students pay a price equivalent to that of a house only to be told, “Summer break: the only break you have when you have time to earn some real money is actually going to be spent ‘volunteering’.”
Do-gooder companies claim they offer payment in the form of college credit. I recently learned the reality of this “payment.” College credit means students are technically taking a course in the form of an internship, and not even a required course but an elective. Since they are taking a course, they must pay tuition. That tuition is not the responsibility of the employer but of the student. Not only are students not getting paid, but they also have to pay the school to intern. Despite this exploitative system, students are also told that internships are the only way to get ahead of their peers once they enter the job market.
Let’s analyze the impact of this ridiculous system:
Students, many of whom go into debt to get their education, are forced either to work for free or pay to work. Companies get excited about the opportunity of free labor and claim they can’t afford to pay. Once one company decides not to pay, the rest can say the same. Universities then perpetuate this system by telling their students they should accept this and take the experience as a building block toward a strong career rather than demanding money that they need to continue their education. And we wonder why there’s income inequality.
Students who can afford to spend three months not getting paid take the internships enthusiastically. Students who cannot afford such a financial burden are forced to take paying jobs, often hourly work in the service or food industry. When it comes time to build a resume for the post-graduation job market, students who could afford it now have great internships listed while their peers have service work, food industry, or other paid work. These jobs do not look as impressive on a resume compared to internships in students’ desired field. The result: students who could afford to work unpaid get better-paying jobs once they’ve graduated while their less financially able friends are left behind. With such a clear cycle of inequality happening on college campuses, why are universities staying silent?
Universities and employers remain complicit in perpetuating this system, and they create every excuse to see that it never disappears. Universities, students and moral employers must stand up for college students. Real equality and diversity in the workplace can never be achieved as long as unpaid and college-credit internships continue.