The case against unpaid internships

Data suggest little few labor market benefits for students

Competition for internships among college students is fierce, but data suggest unpaid internships are of little value to recent graduates looking for jobs, Susan Greenberg writes in the New York Times.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 61% of college students who graduated in 2014 participated in an internship. About half of those were unpaid.

Little evidence of value

Despite their popularity, a recent survey by NACE found unpaid internships did little to increase recent graduates' competitiveness in the labor market. According to the survey, just 37% of graduates who completed unpaid internships received a job offer after graduation—essentially equal to the 35% of graduates who had completed no internships and received offers. Paid internships were more valuable: 63% of recent graduates who had completed one found a job.

Insight from the Student Affairs Forum: The art of employment

Unpaid internships also provided no benefits in terms of salary, according to the survey. In fact, the median starting salary of those who completed unpaid internships ($35,721) was less than those who completed no internships at all ($37,087). The median starting salary for paid interns was $51,930.

Greenberg says the extreme competition for unpaid internship positions is evidence of "a culture of absurdity." Moreover, she writes, "the frenzied competition for such opportunities is also putting a big damper on the college experience itself."

Study: Meaningful internships a critical factor for student satisfaction

More broadly, a range of interest groups and colleges are pushing back against what they see as the exploitation of students for unpaid labor. New York University recently changed its policies regarding unpaid internships to make sure organizations were actually providing educational opportunities to students—as is required by law. And organizations such as Fair Pay Campaign are pushing for colleges to stop promoting unpaid internships to students.

Greenberg agrees that students may be better served by avoiding unpaid internships altogether. When her daughter recently expressed concern about working as a camp counselor while in college as opposed to working in an unpaid internship, Greenberg had a pithy response; "Take the camp job, but instead of writing 'counselor' on her résumé, she can describe herself as a 'pediatric recreation and hospitality intern'" (Greenberg, "Motherlode," New York Times, 2/25).

The takeaway: Despite their popularity, data suggest unpaid-internships provide little value to students in the labor market.

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