Your Unpaid Internship Ate My Social Mobility

05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Noah Baron J.D., Georgetown University Law Center

I would consider myself to be a typical middle-class New Jersey kid. Both of my parents work. I grew up in suburbia -- in New Jersey, right between the New York and Philadelphia spheres of influence. My home school district's public education is rated one of the best in the nation. But what I think defines being middle-class the most is being stuck in that financially awkward place between being able to actually afford a college education and being able to qualify for real financial aid or federal grants. Student debt is, as I've noticed, a topic that has been widely covered in the blogosphere, newspapers, and in student protests across the country. The proverbial market for this particular issue, I would say, is saturated.

Unfortunately, this is but one issue within the larger battlefield for social mobility in the United States today. A neglected (and very much related) issue, yet one which affects nearly every college student in the United States today, is that of unpaid internships. It is odd, I think, that the issue of student debt has received so much attention while the issue of unpaid internships has received little (perhaps none). Why? Because while the issue of student loans affects, for the most part, only middle class students, the problem of unpaid internships affects all but the most wealthy.

I, and I would imagine many other college students in similar positions, have seen, time and again, these dreaded two sentences: "Interns are highly encouraged to obtain funding from outside sources as the position is unpaid. Arrangements can be made for work/study or course credit." And, I suspect, they have reacted like I have: "I don't want college credit! I want to be paid!" (In fact, my college doesn't even give credit for internships.)

The thing is, I don't want to be paid because I want a new iPod or a new computer. I need to be paid because I need a way of buying three meals a day. (Maybe I can narrow it down to two?) I need to be paid because I don't qualify for work-study. I need to be paid because course books alone cost me over $600 this semester. I need to be paid because I need a way to pay for housing and food in the city of wherever this internship might be.

But if I don't take this internship, what will I do when I graduate and go out into the real world and find that every job wants two to three years of experience and a list of professional, not academic, references a mile long?

True, many colleges do offer grants to students who take unpaid internships over the summer. But the pitfalls of these programs are many. They are, at least in my experience, underfunded and poorly advertised; they will deny you funding if you get any money at all, regardless of how underpaid you are; worst of all, they often require that you apply for the grant before you know whether you have an internship at all. As a result, these grant programs, while perhaps helpful for a few students, are on the whole insufficient.

And while college financial aid offices are increasingly willing to subsidize the education of poorer students (appearing generous while at the same time initiating huge tuition hikes), there is no such office for the world of internships. In this respect, as I noted earlier, many poor and middle-class college students are in the same boat: how can we compete in a post-baccalaureate economy when we can't afford to gain valuable experience while pursuing our degree?

Without any reasonable way of attaining "funding from outside sources," unpaid internships successfully keep out those of us who are passionate and eager to learn, but simply can't afford to move to wherever your offices happen to be for three months while draining our bank accounts to pay for our own food and lodging.

I am sure that many people will recognize this as an undeniable truth -- maybe even those for keeping unpaid internships unpaid -- but perhaps what many do not recognize is the overall injustice of keeping these programs out of reach to poor and even middle-class students. As I noted earlier, many "real" jobs expect even recent college graduates to have years of experience. Ostensibly, the choice for students is between a summer job so that they can pay their bills now or an internship so that they can pay off their student loans in the future. The reality is that there is no choice at all: the costs involved in an internship, for many of us, are simply too great.

The end result? Come graduation, we will all be at a disadvantage to those who can afford to shell out hundreds of dollars for living expenses and food each summer, or to those who don't need to make any money over the summer to pay for food or books.