How the Internship Industry Perpetuates Inequity

Blog Post
May 5, 2020

For college students, internships are a gateway to the workforce, providing them with an opportunity to work in their field of interest and giving them a taste of what their future careers could look like. While completing an internship can give graduates a leg up when searching for employment, the inequities that afflict students in higher education can follow them into their internship. The key players in the internship game--schools, internship placement companies, and employers--can perpetuate these inequities through their policies and business models, making it difficult for less privileged students to gain valuable experience.

Securing and completing an internship is much easier said than done. College students have to vault over financial, time, and professional development hurdles in order to gain these experiences. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin found that 64 percent of students could not complete an internship, despite their desire to, because it didn’t accommodate their work schedules, it didn’t pay enough, or it wasn’t in the student’s desired fields.

But for employers, internships are one of the most important factors to evaluate a candidate. In 2017, a survey found that 64 percent of employers prefer to hire a candidate with relevant work experience. Today’s college students are facing an increasingly competitive job market, and they are looking to distinguish themselves from others. And they may be willing to leverage any and all of their resources in order to add an internship to their resumes, even when the internship is unpaid.

Unpaid internships are nothing new, but what about paying to just get your foot in the door? Both nonprofit organizations and companies exist to provide internship placement services in high demand fields and locations to students. In addition to placing students in unpaid internships, some of these programs also guarantee housing, professional development programming, 24/7 staff assistance, and some sort of academic credit; they eliminate the stress and logistical hassles of securing an internship, with a price tag that could potentially be as high as $15,000. If students (or their families) are willing to pay the cost, internship placement programs will provide the service.

But most students don’t have thousands of dollars at their disposal. Some students may even be willing to take on debt to participate. Dream Careers, an internship placement organization based in California, suggests taking out private student loans as a way to pay for the experience. Another internship placement company called City Internships identifies financing schemes such as installment plans (with a 12.5 percent service fee), private loans, and even income share agreements. Options like these are marketed as an investment in your future, but should we really expect students to take on even more debt to afford an unpaid internship experience?

These inequities exist beyond the programs that place interns; sometimes colleges and universities can exacerbate them. Requiring internship experience in order to graduate seems like a good idea on the surface. After all, internships provide real, professional experience that students can leverage as they begin their careers. But these requirements, without the proper infrastructure and understanding in place to help students succeed, can do more harm than good.

Recognition for completing an internship comes in the form of credits. In other words, the student must pay the school in order for the internship to count toward the program’s requirements. Students are already struggling to pay for college, and unpaid internships still haunt the intern economy. Requiring that the student pay for credits to certify that they complete an internship is counterintuitive; the student is supposed to benefit from these experiences, not be burdened by them.

Inequity doesn’t have to plague the internship industry. Employers, third-party internship placement organizations, and schools hold all of the cards--it is their responsibility to reform policies that limit access and equity. This starts with the most basic and common-sense action: paying interns. Unpaid internships discriminate against those who can’t afford to work without financial compensation; after all, experience doesn’t pay the bills. Students are contributing to their employer’s work and they should be compensated fairly for it.

There are also ways that colleges and universities can reform their policies and practices to make obtaining professional experience more practical for students. They could take a cue from Northeastern University’s co-op program, which offers students the opportunity alternate semesters between academic classes and full-time employment. The co-op experiences don’t require academic credit and come at no extra cost to the student. Northeastern’s program blends the academic and employment experiences by providing faculty and staff support to help students find an experience. The result? A vast majority of students (94 percent) complete a co-op assignment by the time they graduate.

Organizations like the nonprofit Skills for Rhode Island’s Future help college students secure internships free of charge. Its College Prepare RI program is geared towards first generation college students at state funded schools, offering them paid work experience aligned with their major. Students who are accepted into the program complete workshops and interviews and are subsequently matched with an employer for the summer.

Nonprofits that place students in internships in coveted destinations, such as Washington DC, can also step up to improve equity instead of deepening it. Programs like College To Congress’s Congressional Internship Program provide Capitol Hill internships and full funding for expenses like housing, meals, travel, and professional clothing to students who are either Pell eligible, receive financial aid as a student with disabilities, or have DACA status. Targeted opportunities like the Congressional Internship program help students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to compete with others who might have more resources. Such programs are steps in the right direction to level the playing field and reduce inequity.

The current pandemic has disrupted the internship industry. Some employers are now offering remote internships in lieu of traditional, in office ones. This has opened the door for some students who may have faced barriers like transportation and time, but it closes the door for others. Remote interns need a stable WiFi connection, IT equipment, and a relatively quiet place to work. The pandemic has made it painfully clear that many students don’t have access to some of these resources; these new barriers still prohibit some students from completing an internship.

But some students have already been pushed out of their internships by their employers. Slightly less than a quarter of employers have completely cancelled their internship programs for the summer. These last minute cancellations have shifted internship placement programs’ business models; some are now offering remote internship placement opportunities, promising students all the benefits of a prestigious internship from the safety of their own home. But some of these remote placement programs still cost nearly $5,000, with no scholarship aid available. Students may be more willing to pay (or go into debt) to be guaranteed an internship, especially during this uncertain time.

Internships give students important experience and an advantage when they search for their first job. But the existence of programs and policies that are disadvantageous to students despite their beneficial outward appearance are indicative of the problem at large: the current internship system only exacerbates the inequities of opportunity. Students with less resources face an uphill climb that is nearly impossible without systemic change. Schools, employers, and internship placement organizations should change to address these inequities. It’s important to tackle internship inequity now, before students officially venture into the job market. Otherwise, the gap between the haves and have nots will persist into their careers.

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Higher Education Access and Affordability