Career Advice for Job Seekers

Economic equality demands that college and university career service offices reject unpaid internships

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Anita Jobb AvatarAnita Jobb
September 5, 2023

The modern job landscape is complex. Even a quick glance reveals that it is full of opportunity and inequality, and sometimes those present themselves in the same job opportunity with the same employer.

College and university career service offices play a crucial role in this ecosystem as they’re centers of academic and professional development. Their decisions have the potential to either level the playing field or perpetuate systemic disadvantages. One such decision revolves around the acceptance of job posting ads for unpaid internships. At College Recruiter, we believe that every internship should be paid, whether that’s required by law (it often is) or not (it always should be).

At first glance, internships — paid or unpaid — seem to offer the same opportunity: a stepping stone into the working world. However, the labyrinthine impact of unpaid internships is far from straightforward. While they may offer networking opportunities, skill development, and a line on a résumé, the “cost” is often too high for economically disadvantaged students.

The Economics of Opportunity

Unpaid internships fundamentally necessitate financial support from external sources. Whether that’s parental aid, additional part-time work, or loans, the money has to come from somewhere. For economically disadvantaged students, including people of color who are statistically more likely to come from lower-income families, this requirement acts as a gatekeeper, cutting them off from opportunities they can’t afford to take.

Accepting an unpaid internship could mean giving up a paid part-time job or missing out on other opportunities that could offer both experience and financial support. This often leads to a chain reaction where financially secure students can accept unpaid opportunities and therefore get better paid opportunities later, while disadvantaged students fall further behind.

Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color

The issue is further exacerbated when intersected with racial and ethnic inequality. According to a 2018 report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), only 43.3 percent of internships were paid for African-American students, compared to 72.2 percent for white students. By allowing unpaid internships, colleges implicitly endorse a system that disproportionately marginalizes communities of color, thereby failing in their responsibility to foster inclusivity and diversity.

The Role of Career Services: Taking a Stand for Equity

Career service offices are not merely bulletin boards for opportunities but gatekeepers of accessibility. By refusing to accept job postings for unpaid internships, these entities can take a powerful stand against systemic inequality.

Many educational institutions champion values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values should be reflected in all operations, including career services. Rejecting unpaid internships is a concrete action aligned with these ideals.

The decision to only promote paid opportunities can instigate a ripple effect. Not only does it benefit current students, but it can also encourage employers to rethink their internship policies, nudging them toward a more equitable system.

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