A few weeks ago, several other alumni of Bethany College and I were interviewed about our college experience. I loved my time at Bethany in West Virginia. I had transferred there after having attended a few other colleges, and from the first day on campus onward it felt like home. I made good friends, took challenging courses, and formed relationships with a few professors that remain strong.
When the interviewer asked me about my internship experience while in school, my response was short. I didn’t have any. There were plenty of internships available, but most all of them were unpaid, and even if I wanted to consider them, I couldn’t afford to work for free.
Twenty-some years after graduating, I was in my first job as a college professor at a small liberal arts college in Boston. Internships were a big deal for students at the college, and many of them were still unpaid. What complicated things further was that many of the internship sites would only hire interns who were doing the internships through the college. At the college where I taught, for many students this meant working for free and paying tuition for an internship course as well.
While internships can be a great way to get a foot in the door, to make connections, and to be exposed to the inner workings of a job, asking anyone to work for free is wrong. Asking them to pay tuition for the privilege of working for free is equally wrong.
The most obvious reason why unpaid internships are wrong is that the unpaid-ness of them makes it unlikely for those students who might not be able to afford to work for free to even consider one. As a result, those students lose out on potential training or job opportunities. In other words, the students who are least likely to have the advantage of getting a foot in the door are having that door shut on them because they can’t even consider walking through it.
Granted, internships are supposed to be learning experiences and not a cynical method of allowing employers to not have to pay for positions that are essential to keep the business running. But there is something unseemly about colleges making money by charging tuition to students solely so they can gain the privilege of working for free.
If unpaid internships are to continue, one solution is for colleges to offer free credits for students who were required to take an accompanying course. But this doesn’t address the fairness issue of accessibility to all qualified students and not just those who can work for free.
Some colleges do offer modest stipends to students working in unpaid internships. But the right thing is for businesses to pay for interns. Even if the pay is modest, that’s a start. And colleges should not charge students for internship courses that are essentially catch-all courses where all those completing internships are required to check in. If a business requires that a college sign off on student internship, the college can do that without seeing it as low-cost revenue stream. If a company can’t afford to pay for an intern, but insists it needs them to run the business, it’s time for them to rethink whether they are simply and, perhaps illegally, trying to find short-term employees to work for free.
(Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.)
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