Giving Internships A Facelift: More Compensation, More Equity

Internships are designed to be mutually beneficial arrangements. They allow students to gain experience working in their field, while helping companies bring in talent for future employment. With that said, companies should work toward solutions, whether by offering pay, government aid, or college credit, to curtail unpaid internships, as they devalue the labor of the student and exclude those who cannot afford to work without pay, further perpetuating the cycle of privilege.

It’s no secret that recent college graduates have difficulty finding jobs. As such, internships help diminish the rising figures of underemployment. Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2014 Undergraduate Business School Rankings note that 61% of those with an internship had a job offer in hand by winter of their senior year. Internships without pay hold a similar value to employers who are hiring. As reported by the American Public Media’s “Marketplace”, 79 percent of employers said that unpaid internships have a positive impact in hiring college students.

Yet, as many turn to unpaid internships for the “valuable experience” sought after by employers, it is increasingly clear that, for many, working without pay is not a viable option. Taking unpaid work now in order to get a “real” job later only makes sense when, despite an overloaded schedule, lack of sleep and withering social life, you can spend your time in an unpaid opportunity instead of a minimum-wage job outside your field. Some unpaid internships even cost money. For example, for an out-of-state internship, the round-trip airfare, housing, food and transportation add up to a hefty sum. According to Time Magazine, international internship programs cost over $3500, yet claim that 88% of participants find work within three months. Internships are stepping stones for students to cultivate interests and skills in their field. Those jobs should go to those students who prove to be the most capable ― whether or not they can pay their way to them.

This is all part of a larger problem. As stated in the New York Times by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, “America’s current internship system contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.” Doug Borwick, President of the Board of the Association of Arts, furthers this sentiment, stating that “factors existing without an intent to discriminate can still have deeply negative impacts… That is the essence of systemic privilege.” This privilege reveals a broader implication. When the compounding effect of prejudice shuts out working-class students, entire industries suffer deficits from their talent and perspective.

Solutions to diminish the opportunity gap and halt the cycle of privilege exist in threefold. First, companies should offer, at the very least, minimum-wage. Compensation for students’ contributions is far from an abstract concept, and it will eliminate barriers that prevent many students from pursuing these opportunities. Second, college credit offers benefits for the students, the employers and the universities advocating their programs’ connections to the companies. As illustrated by Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, “having academic credit increases the value of the internship. It means that somebody is trying to make sure the internship is a good, productive experience.” Third, programs should be implemented that allow nonprofit organizations to depend on governmental aid to create paid internships. Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute and Demos have proposed the Student Opportunity Program, which would offer $3,500 for three-month grants and $7,000 for six-month grants to students who couldn’t afford to work without compensation. Such plans demonstrate a growing effort to provide opportunities to aid lower-income students, and they use already prevalent need-based programs to provide aid. While college credit is a step in the right direction, a government-based aid program would fully open up opportunities to more students nationwide.

For American college students, internships provide the foothold for the path to the American dream. Policy changes are possible to make internships more accessible, and by implementing these reforms, the inequality gap can be narrowed and circle of opportunity widened.