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Why Unpaid Internships are Basically the Worst

Disclaimer: these are the views of one writer, not of Her Campus or HCSMU.


Wanted: summer interns. Full-time. Unpaid. Useful industry experience, great resume builder, life lessons. Unpaid or college credit only.

This listing is what college students see constantly. In our search for summer internships, we face the challenge of whether to choose career experience or cash. As much as we want and need to get a taste of our future, most students cannot afford that option. We must work for pay to stay in school. Is being paid for working in our field too much to ask? Companies across the country offer spectacular internship opportunities, internships that could potentially change a student’s life and send them on a path to success. However, much like fancy cars, private planes and luxury vacations, these internships are only for those who can afford them. Unpaid internships often act as a barrier rather than the opportunity they are meant to be, and universities are businesses’ partners in perpetuating this problem.


Image via I am the Portland Senior Experience


Last year, in my exhaustive six-month search for an internship, I found a total of one opportunity that was paid. I understand that if I was a business or engineering student, almost every internship would be paid, but I am neither. As an advertising student, there are countless agencies with internship programs, but after applying to more than ten, none compensated interns.  This problem does not just apply to advertising students, but to most college majors. Some offered “college credit” only. These unpaid or college credit internships were mostly full-time, and all claimed their lack of compensation came in the form of experience. This is just another way of saying, “we’ll exploit you because you’re desperate to put our company name on your resume.”

Why such a harsh assertion? Let’s break down what “unpaid” and “college-credit” really mean.

An unpaid internship is the exact same thing as volunteer work, except you can get fired and you’re often expected to work full-time and beyond, eliminating any chance to earn money other ways. The intent is not for charitable purposes, but rather because students want to learn about their intended field and make connections for post-college job hunts. Students are regularly told by college counselors that their only choice is an unpaid internship, because that’s the only internship available and there is nothing to be done about this problem. Additionally, many schools require internship experience for certain programs! In doing so, universities fail to stand up for the rights and needs of their students. Students who are paying the equivalent price of a house over their four years are told, “summer break, the only break you have when you have time to earn some real money is actually going to be spent ‘volunteering’ because if you don’t, you won’t have the advantages of other graduates.”

Image via Medium

The do-gooder companies claim they offer payment in the form of college credit. I recently learned the reality of this “payment.” College credit means students are technically taking a course in the form of an internship, and not even a required course, but an elective that may or may not achieve progress toward graduation. Since they’re taking a “course,” colleges require tuition be paid to the school. That tuition is not the responsibility of the employing company, but the student. So not only are students not getting paid, but sometimes they actually have to pay the school to intern for a company. When I considered this option, it would have costed me roughly $3,000 to be an intern!

So let’s analyze the impact of this ridiculous system:

Students, many of whom are going into debt for their education, are either forced to work for free or pay to work. Companies get excited about the opportunity of free labor and claim they can’t afford to pay. Universities perpetuate this system by telling students that they should simply accept this reality and take the experience as a building block toward a strong career instead of demanding the compensation their students so desperately need to continue their education. College education is supposed to be the great equalizer in opportunity, except that only wealthy students can take advantage of the required opportunities. It is a Catch-22 with no way out.  And we wonder why there’s income inequality?

Those students who can afford to spend three months not getting paid, or even paying, accept these internships in leaps and bounds. Students who cannot afford such a financial burden are forced to take paying jobs, often hourly work in the service industry because of the short time period when they can work. When it comes time to build a resume for the post-graduation job market, students with money now have great internships listed on their resumes as well as an expanded professional network. Their peers have service, food industry, or other paid work listed. The result: students who could afford to work unpaid get better paying jobs once they’ve graduated while their less financially-able friends are left behind. With such a clear cycle of inequality happening right on college campuses, why are our universities staying silent?

Universities and employers are complicit in perpetuating this unfair system, and they’ve create every excuse to see that it never disappears. Universities, students and employers with integrity need to stand up for college students across the country. Real equality and diversity in the workplace can never be achieved as long as unpaid internships continue.

Dalya is a senior at SMU studying Advertising and Jewish Studies. She is President of Advertising Club and Associate Editor of Her Campus SMU and is the social media coordinator for Intergem Fine Jewelry at Dallas Market Center. She is a proud born and bred Texan, an amatuer foodie, and takes her coffee black. 
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