Unpaid Internships: Are They Fair to College Students?

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in Digital Issue V.

The stereotype of being a “broke college student” rings true for many who on top of attending classes, also take on the responsibility of paying bills, working at a job and gaining professional experience through an internship.

Story by Hannah McMorris

Photos by Cori Baker

A student groggily rolls out of bed to get ready for a full day ahead. Walking over to her car, she drives 15 minutes away from campus to start her 8 a.m. day at an unpaid internship. However, by 11:30, she has to move on. Praying she’s not late to her next job, she hurries to wait tables during the lunch rush. She changes into her uniform in the car and clocks in another five hours to gain any little bit of income she can. By 5 p.m., she hops into her car to catch two evening classes, and treks back to her apartment for dinner, meanwhile starting on her homework for the next day. This student is hypothetical, but her schedule is possible for any busy college student.

There is a general consensus that having an internship while in college is essential. Most colleges within the University of Texas at Austin require undergraduate students to complete at least one internship to graduate. The stereotype of being a “broke college student” rings true for many who on top of attending classes, also take on the responsibility of paying bills, working at a job and gaining professional experience through an internship.

“An unpaid internship isn’t something that I have the luxury of doing,” journalism junior Alex Samuels says. “My parents are really big on me contributing to my school, whether it’s in the form of rent or paying for groceries or any other necessities that I need, so therefore I need money.” Radio-television-film senior Hannah Laamoumi says “‘unpaid internship’ sounds like an oxymoron to me, because you’re putting so much out for these companies sometimes.” In many part-time positions, students often put in hours of labor in exchange for no financial compensation.

Nonetheless, no one doubts the importance of an internship. Journalism and international relations senior Zach Lozano says that while it is great to do well in school and gain academic training, having an internship “puts you in a real-world environment where you’re using those skills and applying them to situations that help you in the real world.”

Journalism and international relations senior Zach Lozano smiles outside of the Belo Center for New Media.

Journalism and international relations senior Zach Lozano smiles outside of the Belo Center for New Media.

Laamoumi echoes this sentiment by telling of a friend who secured an internship in Houston. “I know someone who took on an awesome internship with a huge accounting firm and he hated it,” Laamoumi says. “It’s a good thing for students to take on [internships] in their undergraduate careers, so they can go ahead and say, ‘Not for me. I should do something else.’ It’s experience, but even more so, just figuring out what you want to do.”

The importance of internships has steadily been on the rise. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that 63 percent of undergraduates from the class of 2015 participated in an internship, which is the highest reported percentage for any university class since the NACE’s first Student Survey in 2007. Edmund Gordon, department chair of the African & African Diaspora Studies (AADS) department and associate professor of AADS and Anthropology, attributes the increased importance of internships to a competitive job market. “Professional positions in this society are more and more difficult to get. As the competition rises, particularly for what might be considered the high demand professions, the qualifications people have get higher and higher,” Gordon says. “Therefore, there is more demand to show that you are both interested and qualified to get a job, or to occupy a position professionally through internships.”

Often, these high-demand professions have the most desirable internship experiences. Competitive internships are often the ones that do not offer any sort of pay. Samuels says the three major news stations in Austin – KXAN, KVUE and FOX 7 – do not offer paid internships. “If you’re a broadcast major, you either have to take this unpaid internship, or you can’t intern at a broadcast station,” Samuels says. “So what do you do? Do you just get the experience at school, which is kind of what a lot of students do. Or do you take the internship and not get paid? It’s the lesser of two evils, I guess.”

Additionally, it is hard to find full-time internships that pay. In the summer, when most students have the time to work 35 to 40 hours a week, many have to settle for paid part-time opportunities.“I’m going to make $100 a week but that’s not enough to sustain living in Austin, so during the summer, I’m taking on three part-time internships to make a full-time job,” Samuels says.

Journalism junior Alex Samuels types on her computer at her paid internship.

Journalism junior Alex Samuels types on her computer at her paid internship.

However, not all students have the time to take on such a large workload. Others may be attending summer courses, or at the very least, trying to take a break from a hectic school-year. The abundant options for unpaid internships but scarce opportunities for paid positions takes a toll on students, often forcing them to make a choice between future benefits or their basic needs of the present. “I think that every student should be given the chance to have an internship and also get paid while doing it, so they’re not compromising some other crucial function of their lives in order to get that experience,” Lozano says.

Students from low-income backgrounds often do not have the time or money to take on an unpaid internship, no matter how prestigious the company is. A lack of representation of poorer or minority students often results in an absence of class and racial diversity in the workplace. “I would imagine that the same people who are unfairly treated in society are also more unfairly treated by internships than others,” Gordon says. “So women, I would imagine, probably are more unfairly treated. I would also imagine people of color, but I don’t have the data to say whether that’s the case or not.” If such students are not able to take on an internship, Gordon says they will not have the same qualifications as their more wealthy peers once they graduate. “I think they’re disadvantaged in that sense,” he says.

Many organizations that are well funded still choose not to pay their interns. Taking a second to sit in the mind of company leaders, Gordon says “the rationale for not paying students is that they would want to do this work anyway because they need it to be able to gain the experience and also to be able to demonstrate to future potential employers that they had that experience, knowledge and willingness to work.” Though Gordon says that he understands the logic for choosing not to pay interns, “I don’t think that really makes it fair. I think people should be paid for the work that they do.”

Laamoumi, who currently interns at a small company that produces short films and videos, is paid on a per-project basis. Though she says she doesn’t want to make a blanket statement that all companies can afford to pay their interns, she says, “I work for a very small company, and they don’t even pay themselves very well, and I get paid, and they usually take on about three interns… I think [other companies] could also make more of an effort to.”

The majority of upperclassmen take on an internship to fulfill a graduation requirement. Yet course credit is not enough compensation for everyone. “You’re actually paying the university for those hours, so if anything, they’re cancelling each other out,” says Laamoumi.

Journalism junior Alex Samuels stands outside of the UT Energy Institute, where she is currently an intern.

Journalism junior Alex Samuels stands outside of the UT Energy Institute, where she is currently an intern.

For students who are beginning their internship search, finding paid opportunities takes time but is definitely not impossible. “If a student is really, really wanting or needing a paid internship, don’t give up,” Samuels says. “There are plenty out there. If you actually do what I did and just kind of take a job that pays you a good amount, but it’s not exactly what you want to do, it’s not the end of the world.”

In the highly competitive job market that college graduates have no choice but to immerse themselves into, having an internship or two listed on one’s resumé can be a deciding factor in landing a future job. Though it is harder for some students to take advantage of the internship arena, it is more than plausible to conquer with extra effort and commitment. When the reality of the situation is that students cannot boycott internships, Gordon says, “if you can’t beat them, you join them.”