An Expensive Knock-Off Cheapens the Deal

Jasmin Wu / Guarian

For most of us, the prospect of a decent job offer continues to power four years of marathon study sessions and all-nighters, but it’s long become common knowledge that a 4.0 is no longer adequate to score that coveted Goldman Sachs banking position.

In an economy with 14 qualified applicants for every available position, there’s a rabid search for the holy grail of postgraduate job security: internships.

Last spring, the legality of these unpaid months of coffee-fetching was questioned from New York to California. Journalists and legislators alike wondered if making students photocopy memos for hours without compensating them — all for the glory of an impressive bullet point on a resume — was giving an advantage to those affluent enough to afford not to spend the time earning money.

Though unpaid internships are now de facto for any desperate job hunter, there’s a new trend called “placed” internships. Placement internships are the ultimate paradox, where students don’t just work for free, they shell out as much as five figures to work for free — and that violates any and every idea of equal opportunity.

The number of opportunities to cough up big bucks for an internship are growing. The for-profit program National Internship Program has doubled its staff over the last two years and is beginning to expand from Washington D.C. to nearly every major city on the map. Each year, this organization helps students with an extra $3,400 lying around to find housing and engage in a summer of free work.

Then there’s the Washington Center. The largest nonprofit program of its type, it has placed about 4,500 interns in the past three years. For $9,000 — the cost of a trip abroad or a year’s education at UCSD — students are given the privilege of being ordered to do the busy work everyone else won’t lower themselves to do.

And for the less wealthy but still privileged, there’s the Washington Internship Institute and the Fund for American Studies, both of which charge over $7,000 for a summer of helping other people.

And these aren’t just small-time internships with companies that have less than a half-dozen hits on Google. Placement internships boast summers working for Merrill Lynch Investing, the American Red Cross and ABC News, just to name a few.

Aside from the idea of paying to work, the placement internship is fundamentally unfair and cheapens the meaning behind those hours of work.

As it stands, internships have always been for those who are lucky enough to be able to work for free. Someone living from paycheck to paycheck doesn’t have the luxury of spending valuable time working without pay — and he or she certainly doesn’t have the time or resources to pay money to work for free.

These placement programs are casting their nets and catching a very exclusive group of people: those with money.

As unfair as the system is, it’s hard to fault those that have the advantage of money on their side. Even though we might glare enviously at the classmate that can afford to essentially pay his way to into a top graduate school, it’s impossible imagine anyone who wouldn’t, given the opportunity.

Still, these “placement” internships not only cater to the luckiest demographic, they undermine the entire experience. Internships — though once meant to provide professional experience in a field — are usually seen as evidence of above-average ability, and sometimes the mere presence of a certain internships imbibes an applicant with all sorts of attractive qualities.

But when the main reason an applicant receives an internship is a pocket full of cash, these positions are no longer indicators of talent but instead gauges of padded bank accounts. Having a paid-for internship won’t be enough to boost anyone to the top of any list.

By dangling the promise of a glowing resumé — and the simultaneous threat of a postgraduate career at McDonald’s — in front of hard working, ambitious students, these companies are taking advantage of their fear.

We know that we have to play “the game” to get into graduate school, but this game is becoming too pricey.

Readers can contact Arik Burakovsky at [email protected].