Internships can involve coffee runs and fetching snacks, but they can also provide college students with an introduction to their field of interest, on-the-job training and opportunities to develop networking contacts and mentors. These experiences sometimes earn students needed academic credit or lead to post-graduation job offers.
But at some organizations, interns work for free, making it nearly impossible for students without financial help to participate in these experiences.
“I think we have to think about how these unpaid opportunities shut the doors to these students who can very well be good students, but they just cannot make that kind of decision because of the financial implications it’ll have on their lives, literally,” says Harold Bell, director of career planning and development at Spelman College, a historically Black private college in Georgia.
Here’s what college students should be aware of before taking an unpaid internship.
Why Are There Unpaid Internships?
There’s value in organizations bringing in outside talent, like college students, to make contributions and offer different perspectives, but companies don’t always have the resources or prioritize funding to pay them, says RJ Holmes-Leopold, director of the career center at Carleton College in Minnesota.
The idea “‘that ‘we’ve always been able to get interns and we’ve never had to pay them, so why should we start paying them?’ – I wonder if that’s part of it,” he says. “The other part might be not realizing that it is really an equity issue. That’s what it comes down to. You’re limiting your talent pool by only focusing on those that could afford to take an unpaid internship.”
Research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that Black and Hispanic students, as well as women, are underrepresented among paid interns, according to survey data collected in 2022.
Forty-eight percent of graduating college seniors that identified as Asian took part in paid internships, compared to 35% of white students, 24% of Hispanic students and 20% of Black students, according to NACE data. Demographics shifted when it came to unpaid internships, particularly among graduating Asian students. Thirty-one percent of white students, 26% of Black and Hispanic students, and 16% of Asian students were unpaid interns, for instance.
NACE data indicates that more than half of graduating Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander students did not partake in any type of internship while in college. Additionally, 33% of graduating seniors that identified as female participated in paid internships, while 17% of male students were compensated. And 39% of graduating male students were paid interns, compared to 31% of female students.
“Internships aren’t just about access to opportunity for careers. It’s also about access to social mobility,” Holmes-Leopold says.
Having a “disproportionate population of students doing unpaid internships in contrast to paid opportunities can really have a negative impact on (students’) ability to have increased social mobility after college,” he adds. “And that’s certainly a big motivator for students to go to college in the first place.”
Common Fields With Unpaid Internships
Although it varies per company, unpaid internships commonly occur in the nonprofit sector and at the local and state government level. Unpaid opportunities are also typical in fields like teaching, media, entertainment and the arts, experts say.
Many people are “trying to get into the arts world and trying to work in Hollywood,” says Carlos Mark Vera, cofounder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “It’s like supply and demand. Some of these employers know there will always be students that are willing to work for free.”
However, some sectors, like larger for-profit companies and the federal government, have started to shift away from the unpaid internship model.
The White House, for instance, announced plans in June 2022 to start paying its interns as a way to “help remove barriers to equal opportunity for low-income students and first-generation professionals at the beginnings of their careers,” according to a statement.
According to Holmes-Leopold, there are some organizations, “due to their human resources policies or local laws, that would prohibit them from having unpaid internships. And usually we’ve seen that because of proprietary types of policies with organizations where it would be really inappropriate to have someone who is not an employee of a company or organization have access to more sensitive information or competitive market details.”
Job Prospects of Unpaid vs. Paid Internships
While both types of internships provide on-the-job experience, paid interns are more likely to get post-graduation employment offers and higher starting salaries compared to their unpaid peers, according to NACE’s 2022 survey. On average, paid interns received almost twice as many job offers as unpaid interns, while both fared better than those with no intern experience.
The survey also found that the median starting salary for paid interns was $62,500 compared to $42,500 for unpaid interns.
Generally, paid internships tend to be more structured than unpaid internships, Vera says. “Since they are having to pay, they are going to be more thoughtful about creating a mentorship program, what that looks like and the work you are given. Meanwhile, when it’s unpaid, there’s not a lot of incentive for employers to structure (it) and so on.”
What to Consider Before Taking an Unpaid Internship
Some majors or colleges require internships to graduate. Before accepting an unpaid internship, Schlesinger advises, college students should think about the potential skills and network access they may gain from the experience.
Additionally, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask their employer for some form of compensation, like a transportation or food stipend.
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” says Vera, who was an unpaid intern. “And you may think, ‘Oh, well maybe they are going to get mad at me.’ If your soon-to-be employer gets mad at you for just asking a question, maybe it’s not the right place to be.”
However, if that’s not an option, students should look for alternative funding sources, such as their college. About 35% of colleges and universities offer stipends for lower-paying or unpaid internships, according to a 2022 NACE poll. These funding streams, however, may come with caveats.
Brandeis, for instance, offers World of Work fellowships that support students participating in unpaid internships over the summer. Funding amounts vary, but the school had about $200,000 in award money for summer 2023 to give out in fields such as climate change, Jewish service, social justice and social work. To be eligible, a student’s internship must be unpaid, their primary summer activity and at least eight weeks long with 200 hours of work.
“Our funding example and other universities are trying to kind of bridge the gap where we can to really ease the equity issue,” Schlesinger says. “Because it becomes very profound when you look at the employers that want to convert their interns to hires. So many employers use that internship as the first step in their talent pool.”
When starting the internship search process, students can reach out to their school’s career center or alumni network for advice, as well as look at job postings on websites like LinkedIn, Handshake and Chegg Internships.
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