Proponents of the unpaid internship have boasted that what they lack in financial benefits they compensate for by offering valuable work experience that will make students competitive in the job market once they graduate.
The Economic Policy Institute argues that unpaid internships not only institutionalize socioeconomic disparities by shutting out students who can't afford to work for free, but that they offer incentives for corporations to take advantage of the system by replacing paid workers with a revolving door of unpaid interns.
"Unpaid work is exploitation," says EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey in a blog post. "It is illegal, and colleges and universities should reexamine their role in promoting it."
The EPI's position was validated in June when a federal district judge in New York found Fox Searchlight Pictures guilty of violating minimum wage and overtime laws when it failed to pay production interns who worked on the set of the film Black Swan. In particular, the ruling reinforced that interns should be paid when their work benefits the company and that unpaid internships should not replace the traditional roles of paid staff positions.
In the past couple of years, other high-profile class-action suits have been brought by interns against Heart, Gawker Media and NBC Universal.
A grassroots movement called the Fair Pay Campaign has been pressuring colleges to stop promoting unpaid internships among their students, saying they compound student loan debt (by forcing students to take out more loans to subsidize their unpaid internship) and discriminates against low-income students.
In response to the backlash, some colleges and nonprofits have started implementing their own financial programs to even the playing field.
Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., has an "Unpaid Stipend Program"
that offers $25,000 worth of stipends annually to students to work unpaid internships. The nonprofit Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corp. recently awarded a $2.5 million grant to 19 colleges and universities throughout Wisconsin to subsidize the unpaid internships of approximately 1,300 students.
"Often, some students don't have the luxury to participate in unpaid internships because they need to work at a paying job at McDonalds or Wal-Mart in order to raise enough money to pay their college bills," Amy Kerwin, chief educational opportunity officer of the organization, told The Badger Herald, the independent student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
But where does that leave those students who don't have access to these or similar programs? As it turns out, those who can't afford to work an unpaid internship aren't missing out on much.
According to a survey last year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 37% of students who worked as unpaid interns got at least one job offer, compared with 35.2% for those who didn't. Yet 63% of those who had worked a paid internship got at least one job offer after completing their degree. Furthermore, those who had paid internships made the most money on average after graduating: $51,930 a year, as opposed to $35,721 a year for those had worked unpaid internships. In fact, those who didn't work any internship actually made a slightly higher annual salary on average ($37,087) than those who worked unpaid internships.
Likewise, students who worked paid internships in the federal government got considerably higher salary offers on average
than those who worked unpaid internships: $48,668, as compared with only $33,127.
Considering these statistics, it would seem the solution for students is clear: Either work internships for pay or forgo them altogether.
By Laura Kiesel