Across the country, unpaid internships have become a significant issue for educators and students. Colleges and universities encourage qualified students to do an internship to gain experience for future employment. It has become an important element to complement classroom learning. But for too long, employers have relied on unpaid interns to strengthen their organizations without hurting their bottom line. This has led to significant disparities in who gets an internship.
As journalists Naomi Harris and Jocelyn Gecker confirmed in their recent USA Today report on the subject, “people who can do unpaid internships have financial safety nets.” These arrangements “tend to benefit wealthier and whiter students, thereby perpetuating wealth gaps.”
Leaders across higher education agree. We’re doing something about it, not just because of the inherent inequities, but because the very idea of on-the-job training is undermined when a student’s financial situation determines their ability to accept this bridging opportunity. .
This is a particular problem for urban and regional institutions like the University of Baltimore, where students are a bit older and often juggle work, school and family. We see this disparity in real time, as first-generation college students navigate a complicated process to network and get that internship. They may face the difficult choice of foregoing a part-time job in retail or customer service for a rewarding work experience while they attend school. It might be the perfect break they need to step into a powerful field – but there’s no payday. Some employers, such as non-profit organizations, cannot afford to pay their interns. But others refuse to do so. They know there are plenty of wealthy students who will take the opportunity for free.
For majority minority schools like ours, the unpaid internship is a major barrier to accessing employment, as well as a lost opportunity for employers to diversify their workplace.
Still, unpaid internships are a solvable problem.
Regularly, we work in partnership with employers and meet these challenges together. To employers with support funding, we always ask for paid opportunities first and explain the challenges students face. Some have not thought about these questions, and they are eager to intervene. Others understand, but need time to include internship money in their budget.
We also urge employers to provide cooperative education opportunities that allow students to work part-time, gain experience, and receive tuition assistance at the same time. This allows employers to find and keep employees in a tough labor market.
Some nonprofits, both public and private, have amazing opportunities to offer, but no way to pay. We can overcome this obstacle by partnering with an employer who will arrange a paid educational experience. The University of Baltimore and other colleges offer federal vocational benefits for employment in the public and nonprofit sectors. Our Career and Internship Center has set up an employment, location and development program to help students who want to apply their co-op study aid to marketable experiences. Finally, public budgets, foundation grants and private donations are excellent sources to solve the problem of unpaid internships.
Today, we think beyond simple problem solving. We want to build in sustainability, to ensure that students never encounter a lack of funding as a barrier to their talents and career goals. We raise funds through our NextGen Leaders for Public Service program to support paid internships at community development organizations and state and local government agencies. Our Community Development Fellows program allows students to earn academic credit, as well as work experience on Baltimore’s neighborhood revitalization efforts.
Having met the state funding goal for our community development program, we recently applied for and received state funding for 50 public service internships at $15 per hour, for students who want work in state and local government. These are 50 talented, qualified, and enthusiastic students who will make the state government even more responsive to the needs of the citizens of Maryland. Is there a better way to do two important things at the same time – improve services and ensure that these services are provided by qualified employees who started as students and needed an opportunity?
For the typical student, professional networking and work opportunities can lead to long-term prosperity. But when that path is blocked, opportunities are lost and societal disparities persist. As educators, we insist on the best outcome. No one, not a student, not a public or private organization, not yourself, should be harmed by an unfair arrangement such as this.
Let’s work together and end unpaid internships in Maryland and beyond for good. Opportunity for all – this is the highest goal of education.
Anne Cotten (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the William Donald Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. Roger E. Hartley (email@example.com) is dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.