OPINION: Unpaid internships are unfair to students, especially those from lower-income families


K-Staters, you know what internships are. They are temporary work experiences that help build our résumés, explore our chosen career fields and are sometimes even necessary for certain degrees.

However, some interns do not receive financial compensation for their work. I think unpaid internships hinder students who need on-the-job experience to pursue their careers, especially students who are from lower-income families.

Unpaid internships are legal if they fall under certain conditions, according to FindLaw. Both the employer and the intern are made aware that they will receive no wages, the work involved is similar to on-the-job training, the intern does not replace a paid employee and there is no incentive of a job offer after the internship ends. Most importantly, the entire experience must be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.

The commonality of paid and unpaid internships varies by industry. The nonprofit sector has the highest percentage of unpaid interns, 57 percent, according to Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities. In government, 48 percent of internships are unpaid, and the number drops to 34 percent in for-profit companies.

Internships can provide great experience, skills and connections, but can unpaid students truly benefit when the cost of living poses a major barrier to entry?

Oftentimes internships are located in major cities, so if a student does not already live there, the cost of relocation and living expenses for three or more months is prohibitively high. If a student is not able to afford living without the pay from what could be considered a full-time job, they are less likely to vie for that internship, limiting their field of opportunities.

This especially hurts students in lower- and middle-income families who may not have the financial means to afford an unpaid internship. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 86 percent of America’s undergraduates already use federal aid to help pay for their post-secondary education. So, if we already cannot afford college without help, how can we afford to go unpaid for work experience?

If unpaid internships are inequitable and unfair, why do people still take those opportunities? The simple answer is that if a person does not apply for an internship, someone else will and get that experience instead. Internships are in high demand, as roughly three-fourths of students at four-year institutions complete an internship during their undergraduate careers. Having that experience can greatly benefit young professionals, especially in competitive industries like the media and government.

For me, a future internship is vital if I want to jump-start my career as a writer. My options—like media, journalism and advertising—are all fairly competitive. A company may not need my help, but I sure need them to get me off the ground after graduation.

Is working for free better than not working in your career field at all? If the trade-off for interning at your dream company was that you would not be paid, would it be worth it? Even then, I may say no. If the recruiters at my dream job truly value my achievements as a student and want to enhance my professional potential, they can risk an investment of a small salary for the duration of my internship.

This may go without saying, but I have not applied for an unpaid internship yet. The cost of living and relocating to a larger city for a summer or semester would not be feasible without picking up a part-time job — and even that might not help me break even in high-rent cities like New York City and Washington, D.C.

Young professionals’ time and energy is worth paying for. Internships are valuable educational experiences, but they should not come with the added stress of financial insecurity and inaccessibility.

Dene Dryden is a sophomore in English. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.