We’ve all heard that you get what you pay for, and in some cases – organic food, dollar store toilet paper, hotels – this is absolutely true. But in the case of internships, this is patently inaccurate.

Many companies will advertise positions for interns, giving bright young college students the opportunity to work for the sake of experiences and for references instead of money. This is an incredible problem in our society. Unpaid internships are only a feasible option for students with sufficient funds. Students who need to work summers or hold part time jobs during the school year can’t take advantage of these great opportunities because they can’t afford to work for free. Working for free is a rare luxury that only some students have, especially in tough economic times.

This is a vicious cycle – students with greater resources are able to get more experience, and this get higher-paying jobs after graduation, while students who have been forced to work their way through school are shafted by their economic situation regardless of their potential.

Students go to school to learn, to grow, and, eventually, to work. Working for free, or for a good reference, is valuable at first, but can unfortunately teach both students and employers to undervalue student work. Students, unpaid and frustrated, may feel like they don’t owe anything to the people providing their internship, and thus commit less time and energy to their work. As a result, the company may feel justified in not paying interns – you’ll always get your money’s worth if you’re getting something for nothing.

While an unpaid internship can certainly bolster a student’s resume and help them get those paid positions in the future, it is unfortunate that we as a culture are not working further towards encouraging students to get professional experience in their fields. If we will pay a student more to flip burgers at a fast food joint than we will for them to apply the theories they learn in school, what are we telling them about the value of their education?

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March 29, 2013

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