The conclusion of spring semester is, for many, a joyous moment. For others it signals an impending deadline to find a summer internship. Even with this deadline mere weeks away, for many Brown students, summer internship prospects remain uncertain. The emphasis that recruiters place upon experience gained through internships means that the hunt for such opportunities begins as early as freshman year. After all, students who begin looking for jobs as seniors will have a tougher time than students who have significant experience under their belts by the time they graduate. But, as it turns out, there are substantial inequities at all stages of the internship placement process, which have long-term consequences for students’ future employment and educational prospects.
The benefits of internships are clear; they provide needed experience and connections and help a student’s career trajectory. Sadly, many of the most worthwhile internship opportunities are also the most prestigious and competitive, and only seek experienced applicants, such as rising juniors and seniors. The experience these internships demand can often only be acquired through earlier internships and as a result, many underclassmen face a high-stakes internship search. Even with the increased importance of such internships, college career services admit that placement of these underclassmen is comparatively difficult. Diana Seder, Associate Dean and Director of Career Services at Claremont McKenna College admits, “(Freshman) are the young ones, the low men on the totem pole.” As such, internship placement for younger students is exceedingly difficult. This reality means that nepotism plays a worryingly large role in initial internship prospects.
Though Brown assists students in their search for a summer internship through CareerLAB, for many freshmen, this is not enough. CareerLAB’s continued emphasis on “networking” often feels more like an emphasis on nepotism. While networking through telephone interviews and cold emailing through BrownConnect can help students hear about opportunities, they don’t meaningfully increase the chances of finding an internship. Underclassmen around the country are still stuck, unable to acquire internships because they lack experience and cannot get it. As such, networking often means turning to family to obtain initial job experience. This broader trend has been confirmed in the Guardian’s reporting of a study by the Debrett’s Foundation that “found seven in every 10 young people aged 16-25 use family connections to get their first job.”
But because of the internship system, those who lack familial connections to an industry are stuck without opportunity. As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, eloquently says, “America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.” Presumably, internships exist for the purpose of developing a highly trained workforce. But if internships only go to a privileged few, then their benefits to the economy and to society are dramatically reduced.
Even if inequities in internship placement were diminished, the pervasiveness of unpaid internships also decreases the economic mobility of less privileged students. The shortage of paid internships means that students who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds must either resort to unpaid work — all at the large cost of a summer’s wages — or find paid work in fields totally unrelated to their concentration. Brown offers Summer Earnings Waivers for students on financial aid and grants to help cover the costs of unpaid internships, but these opportunities are limited and cannot be used for more than one summer. Frankly, universities have a limited ability to help students trying to find paid internships — there’s only so much funding to go around. Therefore the responsibility lies with companies to offer more paid opportunities — or at least provide stipends — for students to learn and gain work experience. The government should take regulatory steps to make sure the benefits of internships are equitably shared. But, if left unchecked, our flawed internship system will continue to reward the wealthy at the expense of the less privileged. As the Guardian noted on a study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission found, “less able, richer children were 35 percent more likely to become high earners than their brighter, poorer peers.”
There are companies that commendably attempt to include underprivileged underclassmen in their internship programs. However, these programs can only patch a broken system, not fix it. For example, Morgan Stanley hosts networking events and internship programs specifically for historically underprivileged groups. Their “diversity internship” only admits students from underrepresented communities that are hurt by existing internship inequities. Still, these programs don’t do enough to repair what is a deeply flawed internship industry that perpetuates economic inequality.
As it exists today, the summer internship system symbolically represents the inequality of opportunity that prevails throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the internship placement system is just one component of the American economy that reinforces and broadens inequality. But it isn’t something we should put up with. As we get older, join the workforce and enter positions of influence, we should remain cognizant of the internship system and all the harm that it does — and make an effort to reform it.
Owen Colby ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.