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Perspectives: Reducing Internship Inequity

Summer internships remain a popular subject of conversation. Not everyone, however, can participate in these conversations. Why? Because many college students cannot afford to hold internships, even as employers increasingly expect them to do so.

Internships have become a critical component of students’ resumes. More than three-quarters of college students at four-year institutions complete at least one internship before graduation (Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez 2010, 2). Internships have numerous benefits, including skills training and exposure to a network of professionals. They are an important stepping stone when applying for jobs after college, with 76 percent of employers citing relevant work experience as the primary factor in hiring decisions (Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez 2010, 5).

Financial barriers, however, often prevent low-income students from accessing high-quality internships, many of which are unpaid. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may need a summer income in order to pay for college, leaving the career-rich opportunities unpaid internships provide off the table. The conservative cost estimate, excluding travel, of holding a three-month internship in Washington, D.C., is $4,050 (Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez 2010, 3). Students interested in nonprofit or government positions have a particularly difficult time finding paid opportunities: in contrast to for-profit firms, nonprofit organizations and government agencies are not legally obligated to pay their interns.

The decision to accept an unpaid internship becomes more difficult for college students in the context of rising tuition costs, cuts to state financial aid, and the increasing emphasis on loans in place of need-based grants. Rising levels of student debt—and the growing number of hours students work in attempt to offset this debt—translate into low college completion rates for those from low-income backgrounds. Young adults in their mid-20s with highly paid, highly educated parents are eight times more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than those from more disadvantaged households (Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez 2010, 1). The lack of affordability of both internships and, more broadly, a college education, leaves low-income students at a significant disadvantage in a competitive labor market.

A recently proposed program provides a potential solution for increasing access to internships for low-income students. In Paving the Way through Paid Internships, a joint report by DÄ“mos and the Economic Policy Institute, Kathryn Anne Edwards and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez recommend that federal financial aid help fund public service internships for less affluent students (2010). The existing Federal Work Study Program would be the vehicle for these grants. Based on the number of low-income students receiving financial aid at the institution, colleges would receive funding that they could disburse to qualified students with family incomes below 300 percent of the poverty line. The proposal calls for grants of $3,500 for three-month full-time internships and $7,000 for six-month full-time internships. It suggests funding these grants through consolidated higher education tax credits, among other sources.

Limiting internships to those who can afford them simply perpetuates existing inequalities. Students from high-income backgrounds are more likely to hold internships that can help them gain the contacts and experience needed to secure positions in their preferred careers after graduation. Meanwhile, their less affluent peers graduate with college degrees financed by burdensome loans—while lacking the relevant work experience to get jobs that will allow them to pay off those loans. Providing low-income college students with opportunities to pursue paid internships ensures that they will be able to reap the same benefits from the experience as students from high-income families. Furthermore, opportunities to intern in the nonprofit and government sectors could foster interest in public service and public policy careers among financially disadvantaged students. This potential for increased awareness of civic affairs would represent an important step toward a more engaged and inclusive democracy. To download Paving the Way through Paid Internships, visit pubs/intern_work_study.pdf.

REFERENCES : EDWARDS, K. A., and A. HERTEL-FERNANDEZ. 2010. Paving the way through paid internships. New York: DÄ“mos.

Article reprinted with permission from Diversity & Democracy, Volume 13, Number 3. Copyright 2010 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Original available online at

Lucy Mayo is the acting director of the Economic Opportunity Program at DÄ“mos, and Pooja Shethji is a research assistant at DÄ“mos.

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