Internships Are Not a Privilege

From: Tara Marlowe
Open Letter Response to NYT Op-ed

On July 5th, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, published an op-ed in the New York Times positing that unpaid internships perpetuate inequality.1 He commented on how this is especially disturbing in organizations that claim equity of opportunity as part of their mission.

As a single mother by choice, who was compelled to make a mid-career transition to public policy after witnessing three decades of reduced opportunity, I can tell you first-hand that the realization that you can’t afford to study poverty is confounding.

Adult students, students of color and students who are parents are particularly unable to afford these internship “opportunities.” These are the very voices that are needed to bring the equity movement forward. My 10-year-old daughter told me, “Mommy, promise me you won’t become one of the people you are trying to help.” I have yet to make good on that promise. 

People are comfortable expecting students and recent graduates to work for free or next to nothing, even outside of formal internships. This is disheartening for those of us who have put everything on the line to pursue pro-social careers. It is also reflective of the value that we as a society put on this important work. My studies have influenced me to think that it is not a dearth of solutions, but a lack of political will that has led to our current state of affairs.

Those who graduated in decades past may have little comprehension of the level of risk that we students have taken on for the greater good. They fail to recognize that many of the conditions that contributed to their success have since changed. This is deeply concerning, both because of the inherent contradiction with missions of equity, and because it effectively keeps those of us who have experienced adverse conditions from entering the fray.

Students today are facing economic realities that hiring managers from previous generations may not be aware of, including rising student debt and decades of wage stagnation. Access to intergenerational support and the expectation of a future salary have been diminished in recent decades.

Additionally, students have no impartial representation or bargaining unit. Internships are either a requirement for graduation, or for entry into the field. Students pay tuition for the credits acquired this way. The temporal mismatch created by student loans distorts the current value of our time and labor. At best, this is market distortion, and at worst it is coercion. Recent research by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that students with unpaid internships do worse in the job market than those with no internships at all.2 

There is not always proper consideration for the value that the internship is imparting to the student. The hosting organization needs to put thought into a relationship that provides two-way value. If time is the poor man’s currency, then interns should be considered as important as any other investor in the organization.

Mr. Walker also illuminated the costs to larger society. The failure to compensate is, effectively, discrimination against those who lack outside support. Discrimination is a form of market failure. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “If you’re not giving everyone a chance, then you are not getting the best people.”

Emerging professionals in the social sector navigate academic and work environments that discount our lived experiences, tolerate our differences (at best) and value, above all else, a hierarchical closed system of credentials. These barriers are friendly fire that we encounter before embarking on what is already a daunting career choice.


Tara Marlowe

Fellow, Equity and Opportunity Studies

Master of Public Affairs and Politics, 2016

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy

Cell: 732-421-5748




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commented 2016-08-11 13:55:14 -0400
Absolutely true! Entities providing internships too often ignor labor laws that state clearly that unpaid internships must offer real value to the interns, more than just a line on a résumé, getting coffee, answering phones, and filing papers, but an opportunity, for example, to do moderately high-level tasks that they would not get a chance to do in an entry-level position. I recommend the book “Intern Nation” for a look into the various issues—including our colleges and universities, including public ones as well as private, who bring in students from around the world, who pay high tuition, to serve as interns. One example that sticks in my mind is Disney, which (at least as of the date of that book) required an off-season unpaid internship as a qualification for a summer unpaid internship! What would likely be of more benefit to students would be a European style apprenticeship, actually learning an industry with a mentoring professional, a company that would invest in training an apprentice with a goal of employing that indivdual after graduation from an apprentice program.
I often wonder about small not-for-profits with whom I work that say, “we should get an intern”—have they thought through the implications of that? Would it not be better to say, “If we don’t have the capacity to do this, how can we raise money for at least a stipend, or is there another group with whom we can pool our resources for this project?”
Network for Responsible Public Policy posted about Internships Are Not a Privilege on Network for Responsible Public Policy's Facebook page 2016-07-18 11:28:09 -0400
Internships Are Not a Privilege