03/19/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

The Real Cost of Internships and Why Students Can't Afford Them

I can guess that when most college students imagine what a typical, modern-day internship experience will be like, they think of long and dull days spent making coffee runs, sorting paperwork, or maybe doing some basic data entry. This is the experience that has been illustrated for me through countless anecdotes by internship articles, my peers, and even my institution. This has created a sort of "internship standard" in my mind - if you are self-sufficient, work hard with your supervisor, and get lucky, it will be better than this...if not, well, it's no worse than expected, it's just the internship standard. Unfortunately, it has become clear to me that some organizations are falling even below this standard, making the internship experience truly impossible for less privileged college students.

In the past, I have worked either full or part-time jobs in order to make my way through college. This means paying for my rent and food, and also helping my parents with tuition costs. Knowing that most summer internships are unpaid positions, I stuck with what was financially feasible for me and for my family. However, this year was the first year in which I seriously participated in the internship search alongside my peers, and my experiences with the interview process alone have been incredibly discouraging.

Between my interviews and the interviews of close friends, three phrases from potential employers came up which left me baffled:

1. "We would like to schedule you for an interview with the President/Founder at our office in ____ [insert city from which the organization primarily operates]"
College students, searching for promising internship opportunities which are related to their field or their interests, will often search beyond the borders of their college town in order to find a summer position. This, however, does not mean that we are necessarily able to pay for the expenses that accompany traveling to another part of the state or country. If students were being offered paid or permanent positions, the traveling expenses could be easily written off as an investment, but in the case of unpaid internships, many students are unable to justify the costs of face-time with a potential supervisor. Fortunately, options such as Skype are free and easily available, but they leave the student wondering if they are at a disadvantage in comparison to other students who were able to make the in-person interview.

2. "Will you be working anywhere else this summer or taking on other positions?"
I took this question to mean that the employer was concerned about interns performing poorly because of outside commitments or distractions. However, I have never personally heard of a student holding two internships at one time, and so I am assuming an intern's other job or position is usually a paid position which they would be working in order to take care of expenses such as housing (often not provided by internships), food, bills, etc. Given that internships generally require 20-40 hours of work per week from interns, it is clear that a second job truly would be difficult, but if employers are not hiring students because they need to work a paying job, this creates an unfair advantage for anyone who has outside sources paying for their basic needs, whether that be their parents or otherwise. It is already difficult to commit to an unpaid position, but it is truly unreasonable to need to commit to not finding other, paid work.

3. "Would you be willing to ask your friends and family to donate to our organization?"
Non-profits are organizations that are often willing to take on interns because they can be short on both funding and staff members. And, of course, fundraising is a major part of many non-profits that are working to fund a certain cause. Unfortunately, for students that are trying to juggle their personal expenses, education costs, and an unpaid internship, soliciting those that are close to you and on whom you may depend financially does not sound so great. In this particular situation, the position being interviewed for had no direct relation to fundraising, and the employer never asked if the student would be willing to fund raise in a different capacity, such as door-to-door fundraising.

Although many organizations and companies may be suffering from serious financial setbacks, the standard at which we hold internships should not fall lower than what it is already at. We can keep this from happening by understanding the financial demands that burden undergraduate students who need to make an income in order to have a college education. We all know that internships can provide job experience and networking opportunities to college students, but at what cost to them?