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Unpaid internships: Often necessary, sometimes exclusive

Students should ​not be forced to choose between an internship and financial stability

ASU Career and Internship Fair in 2013 (2)
Model Releases on file with PCG and Fulton Engineering Marketing Dept.

Internship stress — at some point, it’s inevitable. Campus is sprinkled with signs advertising internship fairs and resume workshops, and you’re stuck fielding questions from nosy friends and concerned family members alike: Where have you applied? Did you intern last summer? When will you have an interview?

The pressure over internships in college can be overwhelming, especially when money comes into play. Most often, students gain valuable experience whether their internship is paid or unpaid. Still, it’s critical to ensure that internship opportunities are accessible to all students who are committed to pursue them, regardless of financial resources.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, private sector internships at for-profit organizations are typically considered employment, and thus subject to minimum wage laws. But there are exceptions if the student is primarily receiving training for their own educational benefit. Public sector and non-profit organizations are subject to different laws, and many internships in these sectors are unpaid.

Ideally, both paid and unpaid internships allow students to gain marketable experience and make industry connections, and hopefully, pave a path toward relevant sector employment after graduation. 

Many non-profit and government organizations, even if they would presumably like to, simply don’t have the resources to pay interns. Unpaid internships may operate on an informal contract between the student and the organization. 

The general understanding is that the student receives experience, another line on their resume, and the employer receives vital labor. I’ve had a number of unpaid internships, and they are experiences which I am extremely grateful for because they have helped me develop and explore my passions and get involved with causes that matter to me.

Cindy Parnell, executive director of ASU Career and Professional Development Services, says that rather than being a matter of wage, “A quality internship is based on the project that a student will be working on, the supervision and mentorship, and the learning objectives that are included in their experience.” 

An internship’s value lies in the relevant experience and transferable skills it can give a student, emphasizes Bryan Custer, ASU Career and Professional Development Services assistant director.

Nevertheless, research demonstrates that paid internships provide greater measurable benefits than unpaid internships. Students with paid internships are more likely to receive job offers and higher salaries after their internships than those with unpaid internships. Specifically, for students working at for-profit, private institutions, paid internships yielded an offer rate of 72.2 percent whereas unpaid internships yielded an offer rate of 43.9 percent.

The real issue with unpaid internships, however, lies not in their outcomes but in their potential for exclusivity. Taking on an unpaid internship requires students sacrifice wages, a financial hardship that many students cannot bear. Taking into consideration costs related to transportation and professional wardrobe, unpaid internships may even cause students to lose money in the short term. In fact, students who are required by their degree program to have an internship on their transcript may even end up having to pay tuition in order to receive credit for their internship.

Students should not be forced to choose between an internship and financial stability. Unpaid internships, if they are not supplemented by external scholarships or stipends, have the potential to perpetuate inequality and punish students without flexible incomes.

Accordingly, organizations — especially for-profit organizations — should strive to pay their interns the wages they deserve. In addition, for-profit and professional organizations should seek to partner with relevant non-profit and government organizations to provide internship funding where it wouldn’t otherwise exist. For example, private law firms or legal associations could provide internship scholarships for students completing unpaid internships at non-profit legal aid organizations. 

Already, Target has helped provide scholarships to students completing non-profit internships. Concurrently, universities should pursue and expand internship scholarships, grants or stipends for their students.

ASU Career and Professional Development Services is committed to connecting ASU students with internship experiences that are feasible and robust. 

“We always want to advocate on behalf of the student,” says Parnell. “We have a team of people that work with employers to talk about the value of compensating students.”

In today’s market, completing an internship is a necessity rather than a privilege. Employers need to ensure that internships embody the principle of equal opportunity rather than exclusivity.

Reach the columnist at or follow  @MiaAArmstrong on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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