The Internship Racket

(This article originally appeared at Inside Higher Ed)

Dartmouth College is now the latest institution to announce considerable changes to its tuition and financial aid structure, eliminating any charges for students from families making less than $75,000 a year. Dartmouth’s arrangement is not nearly so generous as Harvard’s or Yale’s, yet it’s markedly superior in one regard. Dartmouth proposes to offer a scholarship “to allow financial aid recipients to take advantage of research or internship opportunities in their junior year.”

Dartmouth’s is the most concrete step towards expanding access to internships, in a cycle of financial aid changes where colleges have begun to take explicit note of the fundamental inequities in their accessibility. Several colleges eliminated summer earning expectations for students on financial aid, asserting that the demand that students contribute money toward tuition in summers posed a stark obstacle to the pursuit of less-remunerative internships and volunteer work. All that is undoubtedly true, but the colleges’ efforts go nowhere near establishing equality of access to internships.

Why worry? Increasingly, internships are perceived as essential steps to post-college employment, as definitive legs up for job applicants. “Internships are no longer optional, they’re required,” The New York Times quoted Peter Vogt, author of Career Wisdom for College Students and an adviser to, as saying last month. A 2006 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicated that 62.5 percent of new college hires performed undergraduate internships. Employers responding to association’s 2007 Recruiting Benchmarks Survey reported that they offered full-time jobs to almost two-thirds of their interns. Over 30 percent of new hires came from such internal internship programs. Internships undoubtedly enhance employment prospects, but the question is – for whom? The answer, almost invariably, is for students already well-off.

There’s been much talk about the increasing stock of well-paid internships, yet these are a decided minority of the posts available. Most internships offer little or no pay, and are accordingly accessible only to affluent students. Students dealing with summer earnings expectations as part of their financial aid packages are in no position to take posts that their peers can easily accept. Even those newly liberated from the weight of tuition over the summer are poorly positioned to support themselves and work for little at the same time. The author of the Times piece pointed out that her own intern was eventually compelled to take up three jobs. In my experience, those taking lower-paid internships were either handsomely supported by their parents or worked in excess of 20 hours a week at second jobs in order to support themselves.

It’s no lack of initiative that prevented many peers that I knew from taking internships; they simply couldn’t afford them. When I was in college I was fortunate in receiving two fellowships to support internships in Washington, D.C. Even then, I had to live in a friend’s living room at a nominal rate for much of both summers, as other rents were unaffordable. Saving money over these two summers was essentially impossible.

I benefited from those internships; connections that I made proved invaluable in finding a job after college, but to accord internships a definitive importance in assessing the talents of potential employees seems to me deeply flawed, considering the very considerable extent to which family income dictates who can support themselves during such an experience, and, most importantly, who even gets the chance.
It’s no secret that internships are frequently a product of nepotism. Hilary Dykes, profiled in the Times internship story, credited her “unofficial internship” at a financial services firm to “personal connections, family connections.” She continued, on the theme of connections as a source of internships: “Most people want to say it’s not, but it really is.” The Times story offered several other examples of such patronage. Ask the average college student how they or most of their friends obtained internships – when pressed, the answer will very typically involve parents, donors or family friends. I’ve seen many positions simply fabricated for a son or daughter, or for a niece or nephew. It’s easy to sidestep competition for internships when a post is created for you. And this is what employers want?

Is Dartmouth’s model the answer, then, offering lower-income students a chance to compete for prestigious but low-paying internships? It’s a fine step for Dartmouth students, but not much of a model for colleges, or society in general. Smaller colleges are already poorly equipped to match the most basic financial aid arrangements of better-endowed schools, let alone to fund students’ summer activities. Access to internships is vastly and irreducibly unequal.
Instead of pursuing some quixotic leveling, colleges would be better served putting those experiences in proper perspective. Some internships provide real evidence of exemplary drive and intrepidity; most furnish only sure proof of connections and affluence. Colleges needn’t burnish this reality any further; they’ve been doing so for years.

Colleges have underpinned internship inequalities from the start, in offering academic credit for unpaid internships – the academic credits that they offer provide businesses a shield against labor laws. Why not stop offering the credit? Nearly every college employs an internship coordinator, or a staff of them; some now subscribe to exclusive internship posting services, or even require internships for some degree completions. Many colleges have made clear steps to institutionalize internships as a summer student goal; they should carefully consider the message that their measures and offerings send to students. Are resources for summer classes or research as easy to obtain as internship advice? In any case, shouldn’t they be much easier? Colleges must confront the practical ways in which they encourage the flawed culture of internships, and would be well-served mounting a more vigorous argument for their own product. Do colleges really want to codify a system in which employers value a few months of summer work more than the education they provide?
American colleges do a fairly good job providing access to students of varying economic means; they should stress the superior value of achievements within school, instead of lending respectability and support to an internship racket that reliably, and inaccurately, presents the well-off as more enterprising. Colleges shouldn’t allow themselves to become mere careerist way-stations. Why not point out the flaws of internship-worship and declare “Our education alone is good enough.” Now that would be a bold step.


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