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Unpaid Internships Give an Unfair Advantage to Wealthy Students

As spring gets underway, I am upbeat. The weather is getting warmer, I can feel summer break coming, and most of all, I’m relieved to be done with an arduous internship search.  Many students are all-too-familiar with the long process of requesting recommendation letters, writing application essays, and perfecting cover letters to secure that dream internship. Unfortunately, the deadlines for most of these internships came in the bleak weeks of winter quarter, when the last thing I wanted to do was waste time on applicationsthat I could have used to tackle my mountain of work. But after an exhausting search, I have finally obtained my own dream gig on Capitol Hill and am excited to get a feel for the fast-paced culture of Washington.

Despite my enthusiasm for the position, I felt mixed emotions when I was extended the offer. Like many internships on the Hill, mine will be unpaid. For me and many of my peers, taking an unpaid internship can be a difficult decision with the cost of an education weighing heavily on all our shoulders. The issue of unpaid internships is a contentious topic across the country, as legions of desperate students descend upon relatively few positions in the hopes of finding an inroad into their future career.

The greatest problem that arises from unpaid internships is the barrier they place in front of economically disadvantaged students who simply can’t afford to take them. With many of the most coveted internships in pricey locations like New York City and D.C., many students can’t afford the high cost of living associated with these cities. Unpaid internships give an implicit advantage to wealthier students who can afford to go spend a summer doing unpaid work and not worry about tuition bills or living expenses.

While the self-selecting nature of unpaid internships is undeniable, it is wrong to fault firms and institutions for offering unpaid opportunities. If interns were required to be paid, it is likely that companies would scale back their internship programs or eliminate them entirely because of the strain that these temporary workers would place on the bottom line. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor attempted to investigate and clamp down on companies that were suspected of violating minimum wage laws and other parts of the Fair Labor Standards Act in their hiring of interns, but to little effect; unpaid internships continue to dominate summer offerings in popular industries.

There are also accusations that unpaid internships lead to exploitation of interns and are simply an economical way for companies to replace entry-level work with free labor. These issues have come to a head in the past several months as several interns from Harper’s Bazaar, the Charlie Rose Show, and other organizations have claimed that they were unjustly used to do work that otherwise would have been done by full-time paid employees and have initiated lawsuits against their former “employers.” From an employer’s point of view, it admittedly makes economical sense to use interns in place of paid employees, a reality that won’t comfort a debt-laden college student looking for his/her break into a given industry.

But are these interns really being exploited? Since they’re not on anyone’s payroll, they are free to turn down offers and quit their jobs at any time if they feel they are being used. While not every internship will meet expectations, it is interns' responsibility to know what they are getting into when they accepts an offer, and to weigh the benefits and costs accordingly. Employers would argue that the value of their internships lies in the fact that they are learning experiences that provide interns an opportunity to see if they are a good “fit” for an industry.

Despite concerns about exploitation and financial hardship, I have still decided to accept an unpaid internship. In accepting this offer, I deliberated long and hard about the benefits of spending my summer on Capitol Hill, and determined in the end that the benefits far outweighed the costs. Taking this internship will give me priceless experience in Washington and allow me to determine if this is the career path I want to pursue once I leave the bubble of higher academia. As I come to understand the culture of a vastly different part of the country, new networking opportunities will emerge. While I will be sustaining a hit financially to take this opportunity, I am a firm believer that a large part of my education during my college years will be found outside the classroom. As a political science major, I can discuss political theory all I want, but if I truly want to see politics in action, there is no better option for me than to pursue opportunities in those places that will best expose me to real-world applications of my interests.

My personal situation aside, I know that taking an unpaid internship is out of the question for many college students across America. To overcome the naturally occurring bias that unpaid internships have towards the wealthy, it is important for colleges to provide support for students who desire to take such positions, but are held back by financial considerations. All colleges should focus more resources toward helping students take unpaid positions that better prepare them for the real world, give them valuable experience to gain an edge in an increasingly competitive job market, and fall short only of offering pay. Only then will unpaid internships become a viable option for today’s disadvantaged students who currently don’t have the resources to take every opportunity available to them.  Equal access to opportunity is, after all, the foundation of upward socioeconomic mobility— of, in essence, the American Dream. 

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