The Price of Unpaid Internships

Students are encouraged to use sites like Handshake to help find paid internships. But is it really helping?

As students of this generation look to the future after their college careers, more and more feel the pressure to have an internship on their résumés to impress employers. Coming out of college without having any work experience is beginning to lay heavy on the shoulders of students.

Junior screenwriting major, Maddy Kimmell, has had three unpaid internships over her college career.

“Interning has become kind of toxic and useless. You’re getting paid nothing for a lot of work. You put in loads of time, effort and gas money for a line on your resume,” Kimmell said.

Though she enjoyed her internships, Kimmell said she didn’t feel any more prepared for her future career.

Kimmell is one of the 61 percent of college students who will graduate having experienced an internship, according to a 2017 report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

At Chapman University, it’s become rare not to intern. Especially considering the fact that 75 percent of the 2017 graduates participated in at least one internship during their time at Chapman, according to the to the First Destination Survey data collected by the Office of Career and Professional Development.

“Everyone has an internship at Chapman. Some people even have two,” Kimmell said.

To Haley Wragg, Assistant Director of Career Marketing and Engagement, interning has become part of the Chapman experience.

“It’s a differentiator for students as they enter the workforce or apply to graduate school,” Wragg said.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 1,201 students registered their internships with the school for class credit according to the Office of Career and Professional Development. Of those registered internships, only 32 percent were paid.

If this number seems small, it’s because not every student registers their internship through Chapman.

Though it’s a helpful way to receive units, registering an internship comes at a price.

Registered internships must be paid under tuition like any other course taken at Chapman. This applies when the internship is registered over the summer or taken in addition to 18 credits, in which students must pay for each unit.

But some students just can’t afford to pay for their unpaid labor and choose not to register their internships.

Christian Ledezma [no relation to the author], a sophomore graphic design major, is one of these students.

“I didn’t even know I could register my internship for credit. But even if I did, I wouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have to pay for those credits,” Ledezma said.

But the Office of Career and Professional Development says it is doing what it can to assist those who can’t afford to take on an internship.

“We recognize that some students do not have the financial flexibility to commit their time to an unpaid internship, and thus we make a variety of efforts to increase paid internship opportunities for students,” Wragg said.

These efforts include the weekly Career Email Newsletter, where students can sort through top jobs and paid positions, Chapman’s career portal, Handshake, a college talent-recruitment networking site, and encouraging employers to pay their interns. But those options aren’t always as promising as they sound.

Handshake is a college talent recruitment site that helps students find internships and jobs.

“I’ve used handshake before and to put it shortly, it sucked. The interface wasn’t very user-friendly and I never got an internship off of it,” Kimmell said.

Ledezma found his internship outside of Chapman. He said he’s never used Handshake before and doubts he will in the future.

Though career services may be providing some options, it isn’t solving the internship dilemma.

Especially when it comes to students whose majors require the completion of an “experiential learning activity” to graduate. Interning is one of the only ways (along with fieldwork, practicums, research, and individual study) to satisfy the “experiential” requirements of many Chapman programs.

Samantha Young, a sophomore film production major, is already considering the consequences of taking on an unpaid internship in the future.

“For film internships, they’re usually in L.A, which is far away. That means I’m going to be spending a lot on gas. So I’ll be spending money plus giving my time,” Young said.

Young would also have to quit her job due to time constraints.

“It’s hard because I’m going to have to decide between my paying job now, which I don’t want to do all my life, and an unpaid internship in film, which is something I want to do, but I won’t get paid for,” Young said. “It’s definitely going to be difficult financially.” 

But the inability to afford to take on an unpaid internship is often at the cost of valuable experience.

Crittenton Services, a child advocacy, and mental health organization, takes on several undergraduate and graduate student interns, who, as required by their programs, work either 120 (undergraduate) or 450 (graduate) unpaid hours.

To Audrey Fisher-Price, Vice President of integrated behavioral health at Crittenton Services, the learning opportunity is highly beneficial.

“We believe ourselves to be a teaching organization and having students has a twofold benefit. We benefit from student interns’ unpaid time. But we also like to say that today’s student could be tomorrow’s coworker,” Fisher-Price said.

However, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), internship experience should be “for the benefit of the intern, not the company.”

Some interns find it difficult to see the benefits.

“In some situations, they’re just using you in the moment,” Kimmell said.

Career services sees otherwise.

“The student is not losing more than they are benefiting in a quality internship learning environment. While internships are indeed an investment of a student intern’s time, gaining real-world experience is a tremendous asset,” Wragg said.

With a narrowing job market and increased competition between many qualified candidates, the importance of having internships for future career success only continues to grow, and the option of only working paid internships disappears.

“I can’t tell you how to fix the system,” Fisher-Price said. “I know the financial hardships students have.”

The decision to take on unpaid internships ultimately ends up for the student to decide.

“Students need to carefully weigh their options when selecting an internship, taking into consideration not only their compensation, but also the learning opportunities, network connections, and industry experience presented by each unique position,” Wragg said.

And, even more so, if they even need an internship in the first place.

“Nowadays a lot of people will get internships because they think they need it or because everyone else is. Unless you see it benefitting you and you actually need it for your career, what’s the point?” Kimmell said.


Correction: This story originally stated that only six percent of students registered their internships. However, this was later corrected to comport with hard numbers given by the Career Development Center.

Correction: This story originally stated that registered internships require extra pay. However, this was later corrected to clarify that internships have to be paid with tuition if registered, but only require extra pay if a student is already taking 18 credits.

Correction: This story originally stated that internships were the only way to satisfy a graduation requirement. However, this was later corrected to clarify that internships are just one of the ways to satisfy an experiential learning requirement. 

Rachel Ledesma

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