Is the Perfect Summer Internship Really So Great?

As April comes to an end, many college undergraduates will be searching for something other than colorful Easter eggs. They will be looking for the perfect summer internship.

About two weeks ago, Ross Perlin wrote an article in the New York Times questioning the value, both practical and ethical, of these internships — many of which were unpaid — in which college students will spend their summers, and in some cases entire semesters, slaving away. Perlin’s thoughts on the issue have ignited much debate and this is no small issue, nor is it straightforward.

According to Inside Higher Ed, “the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University and the research firm Intern Bridge, found that three-fourths of the 10 million U.S. four-year college students will have internships before graduating, and between a third and half of them will be unpaid.” Clearly, internships have become a large and influential aspect of the college experience.

Allie Grasgreen, of Inside Higher Edcaptures the essence of the Perlin dilemma, “colleges pressure students to take internships because the work makes them more marketable once they graduate, so institutions and students — at least, those who can afford it — jump at opportunities that may not actually benefit them.” I do not disagree that colleges and employers deserve some of the blame, but where are the students in all of this? In most cases we are talking about 18 to 23- year-olds. These students need to ask the right questions, need to analyze the pros and cons of the internship and costs included, and then make an educated decision about whether or not a specific internship is in line with their long-term goals.

Will Batson of Augusta, Ga., a student of Colgate University, is one example Perlin cites of an internship gone bad. Mr. Batson “worked as an unpaid, full-time summer intern” for WNBC in New York, and told Perlin that being constantly short on cash was a knock to his confidence. Will’s father weighed in as well, saying that “he felt like a failure for not being able to help [Will] rent an apartment.”

I empathize with Will Batson. It is not fun to be penniless in one of the most expensive cities in the word, but I do not believe it should be the mandated responsibility of a university or an employer to guarantee every ambitious student a summer-long internship in New York City.

Perlin finds it atrocious that a company as valuable as GE, parent to WNBC, can get away with exploiting ambitious youths for a summer of free labor. He is appalled by the lack of support universities are giving their students when it comes to finding the right internship, and he makes the point that internships give well-to-do students a leg up on their less affluent peers.

However, his ultimate critique falls on those in higher education. He writes, “The academy should critique, not amplify, those trends.” The academy is reacting to the demands of its constituents. I do not disagree that it is a university’s responsibility to monitor the internships of students who are receiving academic credit, but this issue requires a scalpel, not a butcher’s knife. If universities are forced to over regulate the internships they offer, students will move outside the boundaries of the academy to gain work experience, creating less regulation and more inequality.

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