For most, college students’ internships are central to shaping students’ future careers. Internships allow students to gain practical experience in relevant fields and allow them to explore their own interests to decide if the career path they have chosen is right for them without making a long-term commitment to a firm or industry. Primarily, however, most internships are used as résumé-builders for the impending graduate school application process or for those entering the workforce. Internships signify important and pertinent experience and a work ethic that is valuable to future employers, thus giving students a considerable advantage once out of college. Additionally, they provide a unique opportunity for developing an important professional network. Given the seemingly endless benefits of securing an internship as a college student, the number of people who are completing internships is increasing. As of 2016, over 56 percent of graduating college students had taken part in at least one internship during their college career.
However, despite all of the obvious benefits of doing internships, especially those offered by companies outside of universities, there are major drawbacks. Foremost, a majority of internships are catered to privileged, upper-class students who already have connections, whether that be through family or friends. Moreover, almost half of the internships that college students completed were unpaid, meaning that there was no compensation for their work from their employer. The irony behind unpaid internships is that they are supposed to offer students relevant work experience and encourage them to enter the respective field. However, they are extremely exclusive. Most summer internships boast selectivity, but for students who are paying their way through college or are struggling financially, taking an unpaid summer internship may not even be an option. These unpaid positions perpetuate obstacles for low-income, first-generation students. They serve a system that prioritizes students whose families have the means to set them up for success, both financially and for their future. Non-salaried jobs sustain disparities between upper-class and low-income students, even if they attend the same school and have the same qualifications for the internship position.
In addition to internships, work such as shadowing doctors for pre-med students is recommended for medical school applications, but can hinder these students from working salaried jobs during college that are often necessary if they do not have outside financial support. Universities across the country are trying to remedy the disparities that unpaid work creates by encouraging students who would otherwise be working to find relevant internships by providing scholarship money if they are unpaid. For example, Binghamton University provides the Student Affairs Internship Fund, which can supply eligible and accepted students with up to $5,000 to compensate them for their summer work. However, because sources are limited, these scholarship funds are often extremely selective.
This begs the question: Is it moral for companies to take advantage of the unpaid work of students, especially when unpaid internships are no longer associated with the guarantee of an entry-level job? Although there has been some attempt at mitigating the controversy of unsalaried jobs, even with the creation of an eligibility test known as the “primary beneficiary” test, the guidelines and restrictions on unpaid internships are shockingly, and upsettingly, loose. Ultimately, unpaid internships should be equated with lack of opportunity, especially for those at a socioeconomic disadvantage. Currently, these internships are tailored for the privileged, but for these jobs to achieve their goal of exposing students to necessary real-world experience, companies must reassess the impacts and morality of not paying summer interns.
Theodora Catrina is a sophomore majoring in mathematics.