Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Career > Work

I Can’t Afford to Have an Unpaid Internship in College

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

As a third-year college student who has been working a part-time job for the majority of college, it has become extremely clear to me that I am not one of the students who can afford to participate in an unpaid internship in college, and this is something that has taken me a while to come to terms with. Because internships in this stage of life are such a common occurrence, this is your reminder that you are not alone if you, too, feel out of place for not having an unpaid internship.

What is an Internship?

Internships are typically professional learning environments for students to work and gain experience in the field(s) they are interested in. They require approximately 120 hours of work and can be either paid or unpaid. It is common for internships to pay their workers, but this payment is usually not comparable to the experience necessary for the job. This is why many university students opt for unpaid internships, which require much less experience, but you will not be monetarily compensated for your work.

Wall Street Halloween GIF by Imagine Dragons - Find & Share on GIPHY

How Does Privilege Play a Role? 

To me, there is an inherent privilege in accepting an unpaid internship position, both from a financial standpoint and also from a gendered and racial perspective. Generally, students who come from higher-class families that can afford to continue to financially support them throughout college are more likely to accept unpaid internship positions.

In 2018, Binghamton University recruited 2,410 seniors to complete the National Survey of Student Engagement, where they analyzed the specifics of their internship (or lack thereof) experience. It was found that 58% of the men who were working internships were getting paid for their labor, while only 35% of women received pay. After controlling for their background and major, they still concluded that the odds of women working a paid internship is 34% lower than for men. It is clear that, like many things in this world, internships are catered to the patriarchy. 

There are also significant racial disparities within internships. In a 2020 student survey, it was observed that overall, White students were more likely to be paid interns over having an unpaid internship or no internship at all. This is significantly different than Black students, who are more likely to be unpaid interns; Asian Americans, who are more likely to be paid interns; and Hispanic Americans who are more likely to have an unpaid internship or no internship at all. In this specific sampling, participants were 71% White, but they accounted for 74% of paid interns which reflects a disproportionate representation in internship work.

A Paid Job Has a Confirmed Payoff

I have often heard from my peers, both from my hometown and here in Boulder, discussing how much they appreciate their unpaid internships because of the corporate experience provided to them, but I have personally never been able to fathom the idea of working for free during college.

A study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2020 found more than 40% of interns recorded they were not being paid at their corporate internship. This is drastically alarming when you compare this number to how many college students were no longer able to afford their tuition in 2020, which was around 56%. It is no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic has since disrupted everyone’s financial planning, making the cost of college a much more difficult obstacle to overcome for young adults across the country. If you are already beginning your college experience at a fiscal disadvantage, an unpaid internship is well beyond the realm of realistic and responsible financial prioritization because there is no confirmation your work will ultimately be rewarded. 

In 2020, close to 74% of full-time university students in the United States were also employed part-time as a means to pay for their education, and close to 40% were employed full-time. It is clear that students, including myself, are unable to afford the cost of college without a confirmed and steady source of income during the school year. This is something that an unpaid internship is unable to provide. 

Hustling Pay Day GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Unpaid Work Socializes Us Into Exploitation in the Name of “Experience”

When college students are already struggling to manage the financial burdens of tuition bills, it seems awfully unrealistic to work for free. Relying on the ultimate compensation of “experience” can create a lot of stress in a society that is heavily dependent on financial compensation. I personally cannot afford to dedicate 100+ hours doing unpaid labor because it could possibly provide me with a “better” job opportunity in the future. 

College students are easily impressionable, and if we grow up attaching our worth to working for free, it can greatly damage our confidence as workers. This can lead to unique skills and good work ethic being taken advantage of in future jobs which could ultimately lead to financial instability.
While unpaid internships might be the right path for some people, it is simply not a path that I would be willing to take. I want you to know that you are not the issue if you cannot afford to take on the responsibility of an unpaid internship, the problem lies in the system. It is more than okay to stick to your bi-weekly paying, part/full-time job where you know you will have something to show for it.

Jordan Saladino

CU Boulder '24

Jordan is from a small town in the western suburbs of Chicago and is very passionate about the arts and sciences. Her interests include psychology, creating mixed-media artwork, and spending time outdoors.