Internship application season is upon us, and unpaid internships are everywhere—one recent National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found that 40 percent of college-aged interns were unpaid. That’s not okay. All work should be paid what it’s worth in a salary, not in vague promises of “connections and experiences.” The practice of unpaid internships not only reflects the United States’ unequal employment landscape, but also significantly contributes to it. Simply put, employers should pay all their employees fairly—and that includes interns.
Unpaid internships exploit low-income students and students of color. A student’s ability to enter many industries after graduation is too often contingent upon taking an unpaid internship before graduation. But semesters and summers spent working without pay is time that low-income students (who are disproportionately students of color) cannot spend earning money towards tuition or assisting family members. And turning down unpaid internships and the work experiences they provide disadvantages them against those who can afford to work without pay, reinforcing a persistent racial wealth gap between white students and their Black and brown peers.
The conditions that unpaid internships must fulfill to be considered legal are vague and under-regulated. Officially, an unpaid internship’s work should be comparable to training at an educational institution; interns’ duties should complement, not replace, paid employees’ work. But do common intern tasks like data entry, field work, or writing correspondence complement work that could be done by paid employees or replace it? These rules are subjective, and the law does not hold employers accountable.
Students have few options to push back against schemes which devalue their labor. Industries themselves must change—or governments should force them to: For-profit employers must pay all students their fair share, especially if they are “committed to diversity,” as so many companies claim to be. The government must also change the documentation policies that prevent international and undocumented students from working most jobs except unpaid ones. No matter their financial condition, existing labor laws leave them unprotected and exploited.
Admitting that “pursuing [internships] may present a financial barrier to some Georgetown students,” the university offers the Idol Fellowships, Penner Fund, Kalorama Fellowships, and the Raines Fellowships for off- and on-campus work. But these programs neither serve enough students nor do they always cover the whole cost of working a summer or semester without pay. Under these conditions, it is no surprise that the Voice must fundraise each year for the Steve Pisinski Scholarship, detailed in our Letter from the Editor. We call on Georgetown to provide more work stipends, make housing more accessible, and reform class credits to support unpaid work.
Doubling the number of work stipends given to students would have a tremendous impact. Not only would it help level the internship playing field, but it could also improve the post-graduate employment statistics Georgetown values so much. We understand that increasing fellowship funding could present challenges to the university and that Georgetown should first and foremost put more resources toward GU272 and financial aid awards, but meaningfully supporting those efforts also requires advancing equity of opportunity.
Because internships are so critical to students’ academic and personal development, Georgetown should offer more affordable student housing programs for its otherwise largely vacant residence halls over the summer. Summer housing in Georgetown dormitories can still be prohibitively expensive at up to $500 per week, summing up to monthly totals nearly matching D.C.’s average rent. Georgetown currently requires students to work an on-campus job to qualify for free university housing, but working a campus job alongside a full-time unpaid internship is extremely unhealthy. Opening more dorm space or offering more programs to subsidize or waive housing costs for students with demonstrated need would be game-changing.
And establishing meaningful class credit for internships would give students more long-term financial flexibility. Reaching Georgetown’s 120 credit-hour minimum earlier in one’s college career allows for cost-saving options like part-time attendance or early graduation. But Georgetown’s credit options for internships are severely limited and rarely count towards graduation requirements. A biology student, for example, working unpaid in a lab for research experience should at least get credit for their time—and a quicker route to graduation. Even Georgetown’s mentored research opportunity, GUROP, is unpaid and provides zero credit, despite the minimum of 60 hours participating students must put into the program per semester. At minimum wage, that’s at least $900 foregone, with graduation nowhere closer.
Without these improvements, the university will remain complicit in pushing students into harmful unpaid jobs and in exacerbating racial and wealth inequalities. Creating a culture of fair compensation for all labor should not seem radical. Every step Georgetown and D.C. take toward making workplaces more equitable and accessible will benefit those currently denied opportunities.
Yet we should also question whether the internship machine itself is sustainable, especially in an environment where pre-professionalism dictates student priorities. Stop nearly any Georgetown student and ask what they’re stressed about: Jobs and internships—finding them, working them, turning them into careers—will invariably come up. This is not to say internships cannot be meaningful; rather, it’s quite the opposite. But participating in meaningful work should be a process that all students can pursue in healthy and fair ways, should they desire to. Indeed, eschewing internship culture in favor of less pre-professional jobs, or service opportunities, or even just rest, should be seen as equally valid and valuable.
We see a future for labor without exploitation. Ending unpaid internships is a step towards it.