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Internships tend to advantage students who are already advantaged—essentially those who can afford to work for cheap or free.
According to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2021 Student Survey, 74 percent of white students said they’d had unpaid internships and 73 percent had paid internships, compared to 8 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively, for Black students and 10.2 percent and 7 percent for Hispanic or Latinx students. Among first-generation students, 25.6 percent reported they were unpaid interns and 20.5 percent were paid.
And paid internships tend to pay off, making it more likely for students to land a job after college. According to NACE, students who’d worked as paid interns received an average of 1.12 job offers in 2021, while unpaid interns got an average of 0.85 and those with no internship experience received 0.64 job offers.
No wonder many institutions are working to end unpaid internships.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of interest outside of career center offices and internship coordinators to make sure that most internships, if not all of them, are paid,” said Matthew Hora, co-director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I think it’s been a long-standing concern.”
Initially community colleges led the fight against unpaid internships, since those institutions already had more lower-income students, but in recent years more R-1 institutions have joined in, said Hora.
“Especially if there’s relocation costs, like to D.C., Chicago or New York, an unpaid internship basically is out of reach for most college students,” Hora said. “What that means is you’re imposing a gatekeeping mechanism on entering into these experiences and making them unpaid and out of reach to possibly the majority of college students. I think they’re definitely unfair, exclusionary and undemocratic.”
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, agrees internships are inherently for privileged students, especially since higher education eliminated vocational studies from curriculums in the 1980s. Now there’s an expectation that since students pay the university to take an English course, they shouldn’t also pay to have an internship, he said.
“One of the basic problems all the colleges face is internships and other forms of work-based learning outside the college curriculum tend to involve employers and employers who have never participated actively in American education,” Carnevale said. “Employers refuse to take responsibility for training or educating people, but they want trained and educated people to come to work.”
Innovative College Programs
Now some institutions are taking the matter into their own hands. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a $30,000 gift from one donor in 2006 to fund a small group of unpaid student internships has blossomed into a major fundraising operation that raises $130,000 a year and has a department with a staff of 15, said Kathleen Rause, internship coordinator.
“We began to realize the very increased need for those internship funds,” Rause said. “And so our executive director, along with our foundation and our dean, decided to prioritize internship funding as something that we wanted to actively solicit funds for.”
Madison alumni bankroll the SuccessWorks at the College of Letters & Science Internship Fund, which awards up to $5,000 for undergraduates seeking to take advantage of an internship, either paid or unpaid. The funds may be used to offset lack of wages or assist with internship expenses, such as room and board and transportation costs.
Rause said since the program launched in 2018, about 100 students have applied each year. She said the biggest determinant for selecting recipients is demonstrated financial need, followed by whether the student has been historically underrepresented in their major or industry and how much of a “good learning experience” it is.
“To hear that someone’s been able to take advantage of an internship because of this money—that’s our goal and that’s the success measure we’re looking for,” said Rause.
She hopes the SuccessWorks fund is able to expand to address more students’ needs, particularly among those who don’t even know it exists.
“I think that providing opportunity is our biggest goal and providing access for students that have historically not had it,” Rause said. “We are happy to expand all the way until we’re able to fund every student who applies with financial need, and that, of course, is a function of the funding that we have available.”
Similarly, the New College of Florida created the Sarasota-Manatee Arts & Humanities Internship Program, which started in 2020 and is a for-credit program that allows students to apply for several internships in the region, in fields like education, youth development, fine art, theater, community outreach and video production. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program pays the interns a minimum-wage salary as well as a stipend to the internship provider to cover administrative costs, which run about $1,600 per student.
Dwayne Peterson, executive director of career education at the New College of Florida, said during a panel on unpaid internships Thursday that his college has been able to fund about 60 internships over the last two years. Beyond just helping students make connections, the program allowed them to work for pay in arts and humanities fields, which are far more likely to seek unpaid interns than business and engineering employers.
“A lot of time students were aware that in arts- and humanities-related work, there weren’t a lot of paid internships, so this has helped them with that perception of that,” Peterson said during the panel. “There could be paid experiences that align with the types of interests they have.”
The University of Baltimore’s Job Location and Development program funded by the U.S. Department of Education has grown significantly, said Lana Farley, assistant director of employer relations. The program works with students eligible for Federal Work-Study, as determined by their financial situation, to create off-campus job opportunities, including internships and projects. Employers bear no compensation responsibility, since the funds come through the Federal Work-Study program.
Currently the program has 15 students, with opportunities to intern at the Baltimore mayor’s Office of Human Services and other nonprofits, Farley said. The program gives students with financial need a path to finding an internship.
“I just go to my Federal Work-Study roster and type the student’s name in and if they’re on that list, it’s just awesome, because then I’m able to say, ‘Hey, listen, you know, you are actually able to do an internship, which is guaranteed payment because it’s through this particular program,’” Farley said. “So it’s really helped alleviate students in the sense of being able to have one less thing to worry about.”
Combining internships with Federal Work-Study funds could help more students get internships, Carnevale said. Instead of students cleaning dishes at the university’s cafeteria, they could be getting paid with federal funds to intern somewhere relevant to their area of study.
“Truthfully, that is the precedent here that matters—we do have Federal Work-Study programs and we need to expand them,” Carnevale said. “There are other versions of this, right? There’s not just work-study, but there’s the sort of apprenticeship models. And when you talk to employers, they’ll tell you, they want nothing to do with that stuff.”
Hora said he thinks the dissatisfaction with unpaid internships will only increase in the future, but that they won’t disappear unless institutions engage in partnerships with employers and the government to pay students for their work.
“I think part of the problem is just the numbers—whether they’re paid or unpaid, there’s not that many internships out there,” Hora said. “So it’s a dual problem of higher ed creating more internships and then, as they do that, they need to make sure that they’re paid.”