Spring semester is often dominated by the pressure to solidify summer plans. For some, the extent of this stress means finding the perfect internship to bolster resumes. However, some students cannot afford the luxury of an unpaid internship — regardless of the benefits. Students and their families face astronomical college tuition fees and living expenses, and some students must also help support their families. In addition to the 10 months out of the year during which school sometimes prevents students from working a full-time job, spending the summer working without compensation is not feasible.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) “Class of 2014 Student Survey Report” reported that 46.5 percent of internships held at some point in college by students graduating in 2014 were unpaid. These unpaid internships are inherently elitist: They reward the children of the wealthy, who can more easily devote their energies toward long-term goals, while others must focus on the reality of making ends meet. Internships provide students with specialized experience tailored to their intended careers, an advantage that perpetuates a cycle of privilege; wealthy students have a leg up in the job market, enabling them to obtain higher-paying jobs. In order to end this cycle, companies should compensate all interns according to the legally mandated minimum wage to even the playing field and make these opportunities more accessible.
The exploitative nature of this system goes deeper than students’ individual experiences. Corporations with huge budgets profit from students’ desperation for experience and willingness to work long hours for no pay. Internships, particularly in the journalism and film industries, are notorious for demanding grueling hours of grunt work that allow these industries to thrive. The most recent company to come under scrutiny for their internship practices is Fox Searchlight Pictures. The lawsuit opened the floodgates for many former interns to file against other companies, including NBCUniversal, Viacom and Warner Music Group. A limited supply of internship positions for a seemingly unlimited demand allows these companies to pay their interns little to nothing — interns are expected to be grateful simply for the opportunity.
In even worse instances, there are bidding wars in which companies require prospective applicants to pay them for the position. Companies like Vogue and Fox auction off internship positions to the highest bidder. It’s no longer enough to be willing to work for free. Now, applicants must be willing to pay for the opportunity, sometimes as much as $42,500 — a price few can pay.
But some may argue that paying all their interns would force companies to accept fewer. However, that argument just reinforces the notion of the wealthy maintaining their wealth to the detriment of others. CEO pay cuts would nullify that concern.
Advisers and professors warn us that every summer counts, but they fail to take into consideration the experience of students for whom the summers have a more immediate impact. Summers are the only time students are truly able to make up for the opportunity cost of not working a full-time job as a result of attending a university. It is not only on the universities to provide advisers with training to adequately prepare them to work with students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, but it’s also on companies to compensate their interns fairly in order to truly halt this cycle and lessen the ever-widening wealth gap.