“Unpaid internships should be illegal:” Why colleges should reconsider unpaid internships.

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April 13, 2022

Congratulations! You just received an offer to intern in our nation’s capital. After wooing the search committee with your resume, impressive writing sample, and acing your interviews for a federal internship, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity seemingly feels within reach. But not so fast. A significant barrier still stands in your way.

Around one million students receive offers for uncompensated internships each year, according to a recent brief from the Center for Research on College Workforce Transition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ewa Ogundana, a University of Maryland-College Park graduate student, recalls her first-time applying for a federal internship, “where am I going to get money for gas or for riding the [Washington] Metro train?”

While internships are widely considered “door openers” to life-changing careers, unpaid internships are unjust because they can create an unlevel playing field for historically underserved college students, often rendering them inaccessible.

College students often need to work to support themselves and their families. Indeed, around two-thirds of community college students work, and over 30 percent work full time. Over two-thirds of community college students make under $50,000 a year, with the majority making less than $20,000 a year. Even a paid internship that isn’t guaranteed to last an entire college career can seem risky compared to a steady job. Unpaid internships are either not an option or financially crippling. This practice is so inequitable that Ewa told us, “unpaid internships should be illegal.” We heard through our research, many paid work-based learning programs at community colleges are designed to replace students’ jobs with ones that understand they are students first.

But paying students for their work-based learning experiences isn’t enough. Students from racially minoritized and lower-income families face additional barriers, often self-selecting not to apply. This talented yet overlooked subgroup of students may not see themselves as internship material for several reasons, including a lack of diverse representation in certain fields like STEM. As Kathleen Sweeney, Dean of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at Middlesex Community College, asserted: “Certainly, the [biotech] companies are very white.” As companies adopt new strategies to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in talent acquisition, the lack of diversity has been a driving force behind many college’s paid, off-campus, work-based learning programs.

College leaders must do more to facilitate access to paid work experience, especially for historically underserved, low-income, and racially minoritized student populations.

Require all internships offered through career services to be paid. The inequitable practice of not paying interns makes such opportunities impossible to access for many students. Colleges should require that internships they offer be paid for by the employer or through matching funds from the college. Paying interns for their time is the right thing to do and the best way to start creating access for all students.

Maintain some on-campus internship opportunities to ease transportation and care needs and offer on-campus care. Certainly, paying students is not enough. To take advantage of internships, many students need access to the support services provided on campus. For instance, student parents need safe places to drop off their children while working. For busy, working student parents, having opportunities to work on campus with access to a childcare center broadens access to these programs.

Provide shuttles, transit passes, or travel stipends to internship sites. Getting to offsite internships is a considerable barrier for many students seeking to participate in these programs. Programs that seek to advance equity should provide transportation support to the students participating.

Consider working with employers to make internships renewable across semesters. Throughout our research, we heard that many students who had to work were reluctant to quit their “real” jobs to participate in paid internships. Making these paid work-based learning experiences longer-term and renewable could increase the chances that a student will see these opportunities as a viable alternative to other work they may be doing.

Consider student populations that are typically excluded from internships. Our research reveals that despite the development of paid, work-based learning experiences at some colleges, participation rates among students from low-income and racially minoritized backgrounds remain alarmingly low. College leaders, such as career services and academic advising administrators, should re-envision and adopt policies and outreach strategies that encourage participation among historically underserved groups.

Document what works to create sustainable funding streams. Of course, paying for or subsidizing student jobs with institutional funds is expensive. It is also resource-intensive to hire staff to work with employers to develop jobs and understand community college students. Providing support services and travel stipends also costs money. Program administrators should think through a set of metrics that will demonstrate the impact of their program and collect quantitative and qualitative data on those metrics. This way, when it comes time to convince federal, state, or local governments, philanthropy, or institutional leadership that these programs are worth sustained funding, they will have the evidence of impact to make the case.

With the right policies and strategies in place, colleges can make the benefits of work-based learning available and accessible to many more students. Look for our forthcoming report on paid work-based learning at community colleges in the summer of 2022.

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