Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

‘Paying to be unpaid’: The cost of unpaid internships

Climbing the career ladder can be a precarious journey for many students, and often, an unpaid internship is the bottom rung. What they lose on the way goes beyond just a lack of pay

unpaid intern header.jpg

‘Paying to be unpaid’: The cost of unpaid internships

Climbing the career ladder can be a precarious journey for many students, and often, an unpaid internship is the bottom rung. What they lose on the way goes beyond just a lack of pay

This summer, no one saw Lauren Bly. At least, no one saw the Lauren Bly they knew before.

Before this summer, the junior studying journalism had never experienced a panic attack — a world-crumbling explosion of pent-up anxiety so overwhelming she initially mistook it for a heart attack. Before this summer, she hadn’t sought the help of a mental health professional in years, and she wasn’t fainting “all the time” from stress-triggered flare-ups associated with her dysautonomia — a nervous system disorder that impacts her body’s automatic processes, like heart rate and blood pressure. Before this summer, she wasn’t driven to utter exhaustion, her body so thoroughly sapped of energy that moving her limbs felt like dragging them against rushing water.

“You look like you’re killing yourself,” Bly’s mom told her. “You look like the skeleton of a person that I knew, like a shell. What are you doing?”

Before this summer, she had never held an internship.

When Bly was contacted about an open internship at a Phoenix area TV station, the perfect work opportunity seemed to fall right into her hands: the chance to snag coveted on-air time as a student journalist and hone the skills that class projects simply couldn’t provide.

She didn’t realize the internship would be unpaid until she was face-to-face with her employment contract. She took the job anyway, despite the $1,000 price tag to register the internship for summer session credit and roughly $80 a week for gas commuting to the studio.

“Experience — that was all I thought about,” Bly said.

She thought she could feasibly earn money by working a variety of odd jobs — from dog walking to a paid position at Arizona PBS — outside the roughly 10 hours a week she was told she’d work as an intern. But 10 hours on paper became up to 18 hours in reality.

The loans she took out to pay rent in absence of money she couldn’t cobble together added yet another weight. The constant grind of taking 25 course credits combined with 45-hour work weeks, accounting for all her jobs, pushed her to the brink mentally and physically.

After this summer, Bly swore she would never accept another unpaid internship again, regardless of any promises of insider connections, exclusive experiences or an irresistible resume.

“I can’t work myself to death,” she said. “They think we can because we’re young ... and these people take advantage of like, ‘These are young students, so they want to get all the experience they can get. And we’re going to work them like a horse.’”    

A legal blind spot?

Now that Americans are more educated than ever before, a college diploma is no longer a golden ticket into the workforce. Hands-on internship experience has become a key rung for young professionals to climb on the career ladder to access higher-level — or even entry-level — positions in many fields. In fact, internship experience ranked as the most influential factor for employers in challenging hiring decisions, according to a 2022 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

As internship experience has become more valuable, many interns have had to work without pay in order to attain a coveted spot in the professional world. Last year, nearly one in two U.S. interns were unpaid.

Even though unpaid internships have become exponentially more common, according to Investopedia, these types of positions have polarized the workforce. In recent years, numerous high-profile companies across a wide range of industries — from Condé Nast to NBCUniversal to Elite Model Management — have been struck by dozens of lawsuits initiated by unpaid interns fighting for workplace protections. Around 2009, the Department of Labor also started investigating unpaid internships that promised to compensate interns with experience, instead of actual pay.

While unpaid internships are legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a Great Depression-era law meant to protect workers’ rights, including fair compensation, there are regulations in place to protect interns.

To meet the FLSA’s standards and be legal, unpaid internships offered by private employers must serve the intern’s interests rather than those of the employer. This keeps an intern from qualifying as an employee in the eyes of the law and therefore exempts them from the FLSA’s typical minimum wage and overtime requirements.

“If an employer says, ‘Yeah, I got a bunch of things around here that I really need someone to take care of,’ and the reason they’re hiring an unpaid intern is so they don’t have to find a paid employee to do that stuff, that’s probably not compliant with the law,” said Lindsay Leavitt, a Phoenix-based employment attorney who works with businesses to ensure their unpaid internships are legal. 

In 2018, the Department of Labor identified seven recommended areas for courts to examine when assessing whether or not an unpaid internship offered by a private employer complies with the FLSA, including whether the internship was registered for academic credit, is for the intern’s benefit and provides experience similar to what they’d receive in an educational environment.

The FLSA has stood for 85 years, but many unpaid internships offered by private employers still fail to meet federal legal standards. This is partly because the Department of Labor’s guidelines are broadly worded so that courts may apply them to a wide range of cases. However, the tradeoff is that individually, they’re murky, Leavitt said.

“It’s hard to know because, like many things in the law, there’s not a bright-line test,” he said. “There’s not a series of checkmarks that if you do, you’re guaranteed to be compliant with the law.

“It would be cleaner if the Department of Labor wrote requirements that would more easily be determined ... but the Department of Labor has chosen not (to) to allow themselves room to maneuver, room for interpretation. And unfortunately, that’s just the American legal system.” 

Volunteering or unpaid labor?

To an unknowing onlooker, the group dinner Jenny attended with her co-interns during the semester she spent working in Sacramento for a California assembly member may have seemed like any other typical after-work hangout among college students. In fact, the junior studying political science almost fell into the illusion herself — when she first described the dinner, she mistakenly called it a “potluck.”

But then she doubled back on her words. The dinner wasn’t a celebratory potluck to commemorate the end of the work day, said Jenny, whose name was changed to protect employer confidentiality. The interns attended the group dinner because they were unpaid and some of them couldn’t afford to eat, so they all flocked to the apartment of their one co-intern who could afford to cook for everyone.

“At the (California State) Capitol, the unpaid interns were the voice (of) reason by writing speeches for the politicians,” Jenny said. “We helped with drafting notes for the press conferences. We made sure their coffee had macchiato and the perfect espresso in it. We’re just the reason why things were running very smoothly. And we deserved to get paid as well.”

While unpaid internships may be offered in any field, they are particularly prevalent in the government, along with nonprofit organizations and industries like entertainment, media and the arts, according to U.S. News & World Report. Because the Department of Labor’s seven guidelines for unpaid internships apply to private employers only, unpaid internships in the public sector and nonprofit organizations are generally legal, as they’re considered volunteering. 

Like many other aspiring politicians, Jenny took the internship for the political experience she’d gain and the resume boost working for a state legislature would provide. The lack of pay was something she begrudgingly accepted as a result — even though she would have to uproot her life hundreds of miles away to Sacramento, where she’d have to endure a higher cost of living.

“I was lucky to have...the socioeconomic privilege to move out of state and grab money from my parents,” Jenny said. “Other kids in the program did not have that privilege...There’s probably a kid (who) was more deserving (who) could have been in this spot, but they found out they couldn’t go through this program because they couldn’t afford to live there.”

Unpaid internships proliferate not only in local and state governments, but also in Washington, D.C., which has stunted the diversity of the interns who anchor the government’s everyday operations. In an effort to amend this, the Biden administration announced last year that White House interns would be paid “for the first time in recent history.” 

A gated entryway

Erin Rice would rather spend her time doing what she actually loves — working on films. But the senior studying film knew going into art school that she couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, so instead, she spends her time serving coffee, ping-ponging between classes and her two jobs, scraping tips together and counting down the days until she moves to New York.

Rice has always been a dogged worker — in high school, she worked 30 hours a week just to make enough money to buy the clothes she wanted. When she decided to pursue film, she knew doing what she loved would come with a financial cost. However, she didn’t expect that she’d struggle to even get her foot into the door of the film industry, a field in which unpaid internship experience is often a requirement to even reach the first true rung of the career ladder.

“Those artists come from wealthy families (so) they were given the tools to succeed,” Rice said. “They were able to pay for their textbooks. They were able to do unpaid internships. They were able to pay for the gas to get to those places. And when you can’t even pay to get to your job because your job is not paying you, that’s when you’re set up for failure in your own industry.”

READ MORE: 'If you can't pay, you can't stay': The skyrocketing cost of college has transformed the student experience

In the art industry, another field that has been forced to reckon with its own reflection after recent discussions about its lack of diversity, the prevalence of unpaid internships still stands as a barrier to a more socioeconomically, racially and ethnically diverse art world.

In all fields, unpaid internships have come under fire in recent years for who they open career opportunities to — and who they don’t. The burdens of unpaid internships build upon systemic disparities; those who can afford to work for free are less disadvantaged in unpaid internships than those who are financially struggling, according to Inside Higher Ed

“Privileged, predominantly white, affluent demographics continue to progress because they can afford to do so and because they have the privilege of (their) parents,” said DP Leighton, assistant director of Creative Career Services at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “You see generation after generation ... they have more career experience, they have more networking subsequently through those experiences, and then they are able to network their own community back into that pipeline of privilege.”

Racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities impact whether or not students opt to participate in internships in the first place — both paid and unpaid. White students and male students are disproportionately represented among paid interns, according to data collected in July by NACE. In contrast, it’s more likely for Black students to hold unpaid internships and for Hispanic students and first-generation students to have no internship experience at all, a 2019 NACE report found.

“We have to do something, or this is going to continue to be a problem,” Leighton said. “People in the media, people in arts and design, people in filmmaking and entertainment, they’re going to continue being affluent white demographics who continue to decide what is on TV, who’s watching what, who’s represented in the museums, who’s getting more of the money, who’s making those decisions.”

The disparities that characterize unpaid internships don’t stop there. Instead, they reverberate up the career ladder, impacting the career trajectories of unpaid interns over the course of their professional lives.

Students with paid internship experience receive on average at least one job offer postgraduation while students with unpaid internship experience or no internship experience receive fewer than one on average, according to a 2021 NACE survey

“For a paid internship, (employers) treat you like you’re going to be there forever because most likely in paid internships, they offer you a job in the end,” Jenny said. “But unpaid (interns), they know you’re not permanent, you’re temporary. They don’t want you to leave, but it feels like it.”

It’s also more likely that paid interns will receive a higher starting salary in full-time positions than their unpaid counterparts — the median starting salary for formerly paid interns was $20,000 higher than that of formerly unpaid interns, according to a NACE survey from last year. Because women are overrepresented in unpaid internships, this discrepancy has contributed to the gender pay gap that persists throughout women’s careers, even before their professional lives really start, according to Bloomberg

“Even if you’re financially stable, I don’t think you should work an unpaid internship because no matter what, it’s still an exploitation of your labor,” Rice said. “You wouldn’t get an unpaid job ... so why are you taking this labor and doing this work for these people who have enough money and time to be doing it?”     

Reconstructing the ladder

Last summer, Leighton met with an employer to discuss an exciting new internship that would broaden the bounds of where ASU could take its art students: an opportunity to work in animation in Japan.

While sitting across from the employer, Leighton was casually informed the internship would be unpaid. He and his assistant promptly closed their notebooks. There was nothing more to discuss. He put on a cloying smile and outstretched his arm in a neutralizing handshake.

“Thank you so much for your time,” Leighton said to the employer. “You can send us the job description, and we’ll pass that along to central Career Services (ASU’s general career help department), but we’re not doing this.”

The employer wasn’t fond of his response. Leighton didn’t expect him to be.

As Creative Career Services has taken a stronger stance against unpaid work opportunities by refusing to post about or share them to Herberger students unless they benefit the wider community — such as volunteer positions offered by nonprofit organizations or government entities — not all of its would-be partners in the art world have been supportive, Leighton said.

READ MORE: Passion over pay: Challenging the starving artist stereotype

When he came to work at ASU to help connect ambitious students to careers in the art world, he was coming off a past of couch surfing and freelancing in New York in an attempt to make it as a photographer with no unpaid internship experience, merely because he couldn’t afford to accept one during college. From his own experience, he knew what needed to change, and he wanted to make it happen.

“ASU is committed to equitable access and thriving communities,” Leighton said. “These (unpaid internships) fly in the face of that, and I’m done with it.” 

Numerous programs at ASU, as well as the University itself, have adopted stances encouraging employers to pay student interns, according to a University spokesperson.

“Arizona State University recognizes the significance of internship experiences in shaping students’ career paths,” a University spokesperson wrote in an email. “We strongly encourage all employers to provide compensation for these opportunities. Our commitment to this encouragement stems from our dedication to ensuring equitable access to career-building experiences for all our students.”

Herberger has gone one step further by encouraging employers to pay student interns at least minimum wage because “Unpaid internships exacerbate income disparities, disproportionately privilege affluent communities and deepen the existing social divide,” according to its website. Herberger’s Design School has taken an even more aggressive stance by completely prohibiting its students from registering unpaid internships for credit.

Universities have played a key role in facilitating unpaid internships for students. Many employers have their unpaid interns register their work for class credit as a form of compensation and to follow the Department of Labor’s guidelines, but some critics of unpaid internships have condemned this practice as collusion between colleges and employers. 

READ MORE: Opinion: Unpaid internships are taking advantage of college students

But universities are also helping to bridge the disparities that characterize internship participation by providing unpaid student interns with scholarships funded by donors to help them accessibly attain this professional experience. At ASU, a number of funds are offered for unpaid student interns, from those in public service to English to sustainability.

“We believe every student should have an equal opportunity to access valuable internship experiences that contribute to their career development, and we remain committed to working with our students to achieve this goal,” a University spokesperson wrote in an email.

Even though calls for an end to unpaid internships have become only louder and louder in recent years, the future of intern compensation continues to be foggy. Employers are still hiring unpaid interns, lawsuits are raging on in the courts, and students are continuing to step foot on the internship ladder — even if this key bottom rung remains contested.

Edited by Camila Pedrosa and Savannah Dagupion

This story is part of The Element Issue, which was released on Nov. 1, 2023. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @madelineynguyen on X.

Like State Press Magazine on Facebook, follow @statepressmag on X and Instagram and read our releases on Issuu.

Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.