Students Should Say No to Unpaid Internships

BOSTON (MainStreet) — As an undergraduate in the late 1990s, I made the decision to transfer halfway through my college career from a private university to a state school.

This decision was motivated partially by finances. Despite having a half-scholarship, a full Pell Grant and a combination of other need- and merit-based financial aid awards, I still could not afford tuition and fees. Additionally, I wanted to do a double major in English and journalism, but my university offered no journalism program and hardly any journalism courses.

After I transferred to a public college, I was disheartened to find that a main requirement of the journalism major was to work a full-time internship during one of my summers. Despite being enrolled in a relatively more affordable school, I still needed to work close to half-time during the school year and full-time during my summers to make ends meet, as I had no parental contribution to my post-secondary education.

I opted to minor in journalism instead, which required the same course load as the major, but only a half-time internship. Even so, I was unable to find a paying internship or an unpaid internship with a flexible enough schedule to allow me to work a second paying job. Since my financial circumstances required I work for money, I wound up graduating without completing this final requirement of my minor.

Now, well over a decade after I got my bachelor's degree, the unpaid internship has become a staple of many undergraduate and even graduate programs across the country.

It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million students work internships each year. Of those, approximately 20% are unpaid and offer no academic credit. Other sources suggest that unpaid internships may even be more common. Of all the internships listed on Internships.com in 2010, two-thirds were unpaid.

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