Internships: Underpaid and Underrepresented


Piggy bank with young man worrying in background

Clarisse Vazquez

Receiving a degree from UC San Diego (or any other collegiate institution) is not the only criteria to secure a place in the job market anymore. Previous work experience, especially experience in the area of expertise one is pursuing, is vital to be seen as a more competitive candidate and many firms can offer students this opportunity in the form of summer internships.  However, the economics of finding an internship prioritize students from more affluent families. Without experience in the work field or at least some connections, job prospects after college might be dim for students who do not have the financial ability to compensate for time spent at an unpaid internship. While many universities such as UCSD are accepting low-income and middle-class applicants in addition to providing financial aid, it is only a small step toward the goal of improving upward social mobility for these students.

Nonprofit and for-profit firms are using unpaid internships as a way to hire educated and capable young minds to complete (sometimes menial) work for them. This can easily become exploitive since students worried about seeming competitive in the future will pursue these internships despite the harsh financial reality they will have to endure. Students hired are expected to cover the cost of living, travel, and food, while simultaneously working anywhere from 20 to 40 hours at a job that doesn’t even provide monetary compensation to offset these costs. Many times, students, who constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in society due to their high amount of debt, will have to work another job during the internship just to provide basic necessities for themselves. There is an underlying assumption that students will receive the financial support from their parents or family needed to work at an unpaid internship. However, this assumption caters to the affluent members of society. For people of color especially, the fact that white households earn $24,000 more than black or Latino households means that these unpaid internships are reserved for a sector of society that is not representative of the diverse workforce.

Unfortunately, companies offering these internships overlook the rest of the population, with its own unique backgrounds and abilities, solely because they lack the same privilege as white upper-class households.  

The experience that unpaid internships can offer might be worthwhile if they are near where the students live. However, for students that don’t live in the cities that host the most internships such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, they will have to pay the high cost of living to reside there. It is estimated that housing in large cities costs $3,500, transportation costs $360, and food costs, $1200 per month, adding up to an expensive total of $5,060 while earning $0 in monthly income. Internships are seen as a means by which students can prove themselves in the workplace. However, with students barely able to pay their tuition, an unpaid internship seems to be a luxury that not many can afford despite being one that could have the capacity to determine their economic mobility in life.

Students who can’t afford to gain that unpaid work experience will miss an opportunity to make connections and gain firsthand knowledge working in that area of expertise. Even though every student at a certain university is offered the same level of college education, it goes beyond theoretical use; students need the practical implementation of what they learned in order to be seen as having a more complete education to recruiters. This level of education, which includes theoretical and practical knowledge, signals preparedness for the workplace. Despite already paying college tuition, students are expected to find real-life work experience while simultaneously paying the costs associated with these unpaid internships. This not only furthers the divide between those who are privileged and can afford these internships, but it ends up widening the gap between their quality of education as well. The students able to acquire an unpaid internship will potentially be “more educated” in the eyes of a future employer compared to the applicants who couldn’t afford a real-life work experience.

While many low-income students have to opt out of unpaid internship opportunities to pursue “summer jobs,” which could at least position them to start paying off loans or other financial obligations, the privileged are able to earn professional knowledge. CEO of Burning Glass Technologies Matt Sigelman states that “summer jobs are not going to position you for work after graduation.” This statement is further legitimized by the fact that starting salaries for graduates with an internship experience average about $52,000, compared with $37,000 for those without an internship. Therefore, low income-students are presented with Sophie’s choice: either they risk a potential higher earning job to work a summer job that could cover tuition fees, or they incur more debt to work an unpaid internship which will set them back further in paying student loans.

UCSD should provide grants for students seeking unpaid internships. Since employers use internships as a means of comparing prospective hires, it should be the responsibility of the university to include this requirement in the educational curriculum. If an education is to mean more than just a collection of notes taken in a lecture hall, then a portion of the financial aid allocation should include funding for this type of educational opportunity. Especially at a school that advocates for diversity, it’s not enough for UCSD to promote diversity in its applicant pool, but it must continue with this tradition into the job market.