Among College Students, the Frenzied Competition to Work for No Pay

Among College Students, the Frenzied Competition to Work for No Pay

I couldn’t resist posting this NY Times article on college internships. I can vouch feeling this way after going through the stress with 2 of my children in trying to fulfill the college internship requirement, not even taking into consideration whether they would be paid. Read on parents and students. Welcome to the college world of internships and all that it brings!


My daughter, a college freshman, is stressed — but not about her coursework. What’s keeping her up at night is her summer plan: specifically, landing the perfect unpaid internship. She is worried that if she fails to earn a spot supplying free labor, she may have to resort to earning several thousand dollars as a camp counselor.

“What qualifications and experiences do I have that would contribute to a … government summer fellowship?” she texted me one night.

I refrained from sharing the first three responses that popped into my head:

1. Clearly none, if you need to ask me.
2. A mother who you can always count on for help when you’re stuck.
3. Oh, it’s free labor! Isn’t your willingness to bust your butt for nothing qualification enough?

Apparently not. Summer internships are the new Harvard: prestigious, costly, insanely competitive and the presumed key to all future success. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 61 percent of the class of 2014 participated in at least one internship or co-op during college; of those, 46.5 percent were unpaid. (United States labor law holds that for-profit companies are exempt from paying interns if the job meets certain criteria, including that it “is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.”)

“Everyone is applying for them!” my daughter said when I suggested that “internship” sounded like a fancy name for “volunteering” for a company that could actually afford to pay. “There’s so much pressure. It would be really weird to say, ‘Oh, hey, I’ll just be working at camp again this summer.’”

Reader response to a 2012 column by The Ethicist, “The Internship Rip-Off.”Credit
Why? Unpaid internships promise no less of a dead end; a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that while 63 percent of recent graduates who had had paid internships received at least one job offer, only 37 percent of those who had held unpaid internships fared the same — not much better than the 35 percent of those who had never had any internship but scored jobs anyway. Even more telling, the median starting salary of former unpaid interns was lower ($35,721) than that of non-interns ($37,087) — who no doubt learned patience, resourcefulness and superior negotiating skills during their summers as lifeguards or waitresses. (Classmates who had had paid internships out-earned both by far, starting at $51,930.)

It’s the latest escalation in the arms race of growing up, where fear of being left behind compels otherwise rational people to buy into a culture of absurdity, like Moon Bounce birthday parties and stretch-limo rides to the prom. The Millennials have never had a good sense of their own worth, or genuine confidence in their ability to work things out. How could they? We over-scheduled their every waking moment, and awarded them trophies when they lost. We enrolled them in voice lessons, hockey clinics, SAT prep, service-learning trips — whatever it took to construct the perfect college application. Everything about their lives has been carefully scripted to help them achieve the next goal; Why shouldn’t they approach unpaid summer internships with the same calculated rigor?

Much has been written about the exploitation of unpaid interns, and how such programs favor the already privileged, whose parents can afford to subsidize their free labor. But the frenzied competition for such opportunities is also putting a big damper on the college experience itself. It’s not just that students are competing against their new-found friends and classmates for the same limited pool of uncompensated positions; they’re so focused on lining up their next victory that they’re not fully embracing the present, and all the enlightenment, activism and late-night pizza that college life should entail.

I understand that families are keen to recoup their huge investment in their children’s education, which can reach upward of $240,000. And I know it’s a vastly different job market than the one I entered back in the 1980s, when it was possible (even for an English major) to stumble from one decent job to the next. But our kids suffered enough to get into college; can’t they just enjoy it for a while without stressing about what’s next? Why should they have to deliberate in February between a summer job that “looks good” on a résumé and one that allows them to pay for their books or clothing next year?

Others are asking the same question. The grassroots Fair Pay Campaign, started in 2012, is working to ban unpaid internships altogether, steering colleges away from promoting them. New York University recently tightened its policies regarding unpaid internships, requiring that companies and organizations demonstrate compliance with United States Labor Department guidelines before posting on the school’s job site. Columbia University last year joined some of its peer schools in halting the practice of granting course credit for unpaid internships.

One student in the journalism class I taught last term at Middlebury College, which has resisted student demands to earn credit for summer internships, wrote a scathing op-ed about the bloodletting among her peers fighting for the same internships, which she refused to join. “I will test the chlorine levels, scream, ‘Walk, please!’ at the children and fry in the lifeguard stand for the seventh year in a row before working for no money,” she declared.

“Right on!” I wrote in the margin.

My own daughter sees the irony of her summer job quest, even while being caught up in it. “It seems totally unfair that I should be punished down the road for taking a job where I can make some money now, “ she said.

I’ve got the perfect solution: Take the camp job, but instead of writing “counselor” on her résumé, she can describe herself as a “pediatric recreation and hospitality intern.” And by the way, that’s a paid position.

For another perspective, read Dan Fleshler’s The Camp Counselor vs. the Intern. For more on parenting college students, look toParenting After Senior Year.

Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Middlebury, Vermont, and blogs sporadically at