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Taking Sides: Should students take unpaid internships?

By and
Opinions Columnists
Friday, February 1, 2013

Dreschler ’15: Yes

Every year around this time, students descend into applications for that three-syllable word that makes most of us shutter with dread: internships. For many, that means brushing the dust off resumes, updating cover letters with over-exaggerated examples of leadership and calling family friends in high places. For some lucky ones, the opportunity might mean a thicker wallet when fall semester arrives. And yet for others, the process may ultimately yield nothing more than a cookie-cutter, 9-to-5 job of paper pushing and number crunching — with no paycheck. Why, then, should students agree to take the infamous unpaid internship?

Let’s start with one of the most basic principles of economics: Every decision has an opportunity cost — what you give up, monetary or otherwise, to reap the benefits of one decision over another. I say this not to display my economics prowess to potential finance recruiters reading this column. Rather, I say this because this is the framework in which we make our everyday decisions. In every decision, we weigh the opportunity cost with the potential benefits, monetary or otherwise.

Consider, for instance, your Brown education. There are costs, not only in the form of $50,000 a year but also in lost wages you could be earning by working during this time. Obviously, we all chose Brown over a full-time minimum wage job coming out of high school because we thought the benefits — the prestige and respect of a college degree, the knowledge and experience we hoped to gain, the increased future earnings — would outweigh those costs.

The same applies to an unpaid internship. We give up the opportunity to make some cash working a minimum-wage job, but we gain a lot from the experience as well. We might feel proud of or respected for getting impressive internships. They might look good on our resumes. Or the skills and experiences may enhance our prospects for future earnings. We might even enjoy them. All these nonmonetary and intangible benefits must be taken into consideration when choosing whether to accept an unpaid internship.

Just think about it — why do we want an internship over the summer in the first place, paid or unpaid? I assume for most of us it is not about the potential $8.50 per hour. An internship is an investment in one’s future and in one’s own education, just like coming to Brown is. The real-world experience offered by an internship is an essential component of a well-rounded and thorough education, a very different educational opportunity from the theoretical knowledge we gain in classes. Whether it is interning for your local councilman, an alum’s hedge fund or a nonprofit startup, your experiences will teach you at least as much as you learn from your time at Brown — and perhaps even more.

Alex Drechsler ’15 is looking at you, Bain Capital. He can be reached at


Lutz ’13: No

As we return to campus for the spring semester, many of us will begin to plan what to do over the upcoming summer. As of this week, the Student Job and Internship Board has nearly 300 paid internship postings and over 150 unpaid internship postings. In choosing what to do this year, I urge Brown students to opt out of unpaid internships.

Many supporters of unpaid internships tout the “exposure-audience model.” According to this model, both interns and employers benefit from unpaid internships. Interns gain a line on their resume and a chance to see the inner workings of a company. Employers are provided the opportunity to audition prospective candidates for full-time positions at little cost.

This justification is inherently flawed. The unpaid internship scheme excludes many prospective employees who are willing and able to work in industries such as publishing, entertainment and fashion, but who cannot afford to live in cities such as New York, Washington or Los Angeles while working unpaid, full-time positions. Students who cannot afford to live in these hub cities, where lower-cost rents can run up to nearly $1,000 per month, are limited from taking on these sorts of opportunities.

For its part, Brown does offer the Linking Internships and Knowledge, or LINK Award, to students who need financial support in order to work unpaid internships. The LINK Award, previously known as the Brown Internship Award Program, has provided hundreds of students with summer opportunities in the past. But let’s ask ourselves — why should Brown need to step in for for-profit employers and pay the wages of unpaid interns? If unpaid interns are adding value to the companies, shouldn’t these employers foot their own bills?

Many unpaid internships justify their lack of wage due to the gained educational experience. In fact, the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act explicitly states in order to merit a lack of wage, an unpaid internship must be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment” and the unpaid intern must “not displace regular employees.” Many unpaid interns carry out tasks — such as making copies, building Twitter feeds or even emptying trash cans — that displace the labor that low-skilled employees would normally be paid to do. Not only is this practice unfair — replacing low-skilled workers with unpaid interns who will work for free — but it is also illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It is, in fact, only possible because employers exploit students’ needs for increased competitiveness in the labor market upon graduation.

When seeking summer opportunities, it is important that we recognize the moral and ethical implications of taking on unpaid internships, and as a community, opt out of these programs.

Dorothy Lutz ’13 thinks we ought to get paid for our hard work.


Dreschler’s Rebuttal:

Unfortunately, economics has never really grasped the idea of morality. So the consideration of opportunity costs does not, I must admit, address the third party who may lose from the arrangement of unpaid internships. Economics’ faults notwithstanding, my adversary’s conclusion that taking an unpaid internship is somehow unethical for Brown students is flawed in two ways.

First of all, that our decision to take an unpaid internship will lead to the displacement of another worker is not inherently immoral. In fact, it is one of the unfortunate realities of the labor market. When we leave Brown, we will take jobs that will be ours and only ours, in effect displacing another worker. The worker displaced by our hiring will likely be one of the thousands unemployed and unskilled in the U.S. — yet this is reality. The labor market is structured around the fact that we as laborers will compete for scarce jobs and, ultimately, someone will lose out. We will get this job because we can afford to be more competitive — such as being able to come to Brown rather than go directly into the labor market.

If you still have qualms about the morality of taking a job that could have been paying an unskilled laborer, consider this — how many summer jobs that we as students take would have alternatively gone towards an unskilled laborer? For many of these unskilled workers, a job that lasts no more than 8 to 10 weeks is not really a job at all. And, most likely, these companies would not hire outside labor rather than take students as interns. If there was really a need for labor, and companies had the money available, they would have already hired the unskilled laborers rather than waiting for summer to come around. Eliminating unpaid internships will not create millions of paid, full-time, stable jobs. This argument is a fallacy backed neither by data nor logic. Rather, it will eliminate the opportunity for students like us to augment our Brown educations with real-world, professional experiences.


Lutz’s Rebuttal: 

Alex Dreschler and I both agree internships offer valuable “real-world” experience that complements and strengthens the educations we receive in the classroom here at Brown. We diverge on whether the value of this experience is worth foregoing a wage.

Dreschler claims the expenses associated with an unpaid internship should be viewed as an investment parallel to our Brown educations. But is it viable to consider an unpaid internship on the same terms as we consider our educations? The answer is no.

In exchange for paying tuition at Brown, we get everything that makes Brown what it is: teachers, courses, resources and on-campus opportunities. We also get diplomas. Unpaid interns may be gaining experience out in the real world, but their experiences are not parallel to the educational experiences we get at Brown. If these unpaid internships provided educational experiences parallel to those we receive in the classroom, they would merit the lack of wage. In most cases, though, unpaid internships are just jobs by another name.

A close friend of mine worked in a coveted, yet unpaid, internship position at a reputable production studio last summer. On his first day, he was presented with an orientation manual outlining his work for the summer. One section included a grocery list of items he was to stock the kitchen with every Tuesday. Another included the schedule for when the trash bins needed to be emptied. There is nothing wrong with carrying out unglamorous tasks as an intern — it is to be expected. But claiming these experiences are “educational” to avoid paying wages to an intern should be considered morally reprehensible on the part of the employers.

A recent successful lawsuit filed by a group of unpaid interns from the Charlie Rose Show has gained media attention over the past few weeks. This summer, opt out of an unpaid internship, and join companies such as the Atlantic, Eileen Fisher and Google — all of whom have committed to running fair and legal paid internship programs.


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  1. individually, it could be rational to take an unpaid internship if you’re lucky enough to have the advantages to be able to afford it and if you perceive that it has nonmonetary benefits. but collectively, it adds up to an unfair and nonoptimal system.

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