EDITORIAL: Unpaid internships only help privileged students get farther ahead

With summer quickly approaching, college students are scrambling to secure competitive internships in their fields, and also settling for internships that will at least give them some experience. Some college degrees require the completion of an internship in order to graduate from the program, but the unfortunate reality is that, for many, internships are a disguise for unpaid, full-time work. Internships that require a student to move to a different city for months, requiring the student to work 40-hour work weeks, are almost unattainable for students without financially secure families.

While internships are credited as a crucial part of the college experience, these unpaid opportunities give students of privilege a significant leg-up over students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

This issue came to the foreground of public discourse in 2011, when two interns filed a lawsuit against the creators of the “Black Swan” film.

“It’s an institutionalized form of wage theft,” Eric Glatt, one of the plaintiffs who has since helped form an Occupy-inspired group called Intern Labor Rights, told the New York Times.

The U.S. Department of Labor does have a list of certain standards internship programs have to meet in order to qualify as unpaid, which has since been updated to seven standards in January.

These standards include ensuring the internship is educational and also that the intern’s work complements the other employees’ work, rather than displaces it. While these are nice measures, the system is open to arbitrary interpretation of these requirements.

Unpaid internships are also costly to students, with CNBC’s Abigail Hess calculating that a summer internship in the nation’s larger cities with the highest intern populations, could cost a student close to $13,000.

“The cost of undertaking an internship means young people from low-income families are effectively being blocked from entering some careers, hampering social mobility and reinforcing existing divides,” wrote Forbes contributor Nick Morrison.

For a country that boasts its “American Dream” as a national value that a combination of education and hard work opens doors for social mobility regardless of class, gender or race, it is becoming increasingly clear that the current institution favors students who come from wealthier, top-tier families. The American dream for some is more like an American nightmare.

A common argument for unpaid internships is that they lead to full-time employment at the company, but according to data collected by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, this is unfortunately often not the case.

“They found that 63.1 percent of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer,” wrote Jordan Weissman for The Atlantic. “But only 37 percent of former unpaid interns could say the same – a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned.”

Young professionals are racing to get their foot in the door of the modern American economy, and they are willing to sacrifice their time and money in order to do so, providing free labor to companies in the process.

If companies value fresh ideas and a diverse workforce, they should be willing to invest in qualified interns.