The National Conversation

The Rise and Fall of the Paid Internship

More and more employers are looking for internships on students’ resumes, and more and more colleges are requiring them as part of an education. But with so many internships unpaid, can students afford to do them? By Michael Blanding

It may have taken several decades for colleges throughout the country to embrace the value of internship experience as an integrated part of a good education, but Bennington has known the importance of hands-on, in-field experiences from the moment it was founded. In a College with few strict requirements, one stands out and has since the beginning: every Bennington student, every year, must pursue jobs and internships during the College’s Field Work Term (formerly Non-Resident Term). While this requirement has remained unchanged for the last 80 years at Bennington, economic complexities and employer support have changed dramatically. 

Today it is widely understood that post-graduation success in large part hinges on a graduate’s work experience, but getting that experience is no longer as straightforward as it used to be when the majority of internships were paid. A growing number of students, institutions, and employers are grappling with how to offer internship opportunities without the same economic norms and support that once defined internship compensation models. As schools across the country are catching up to what it takes to design a meaningful internship program, Bennington is focused on developing funding mechanisms that will help level the playing field for students unable to pursue more relevant, unpaid opportunities on the rise in the U.S.

It is estimated that between one and two million interns are working each year. Of those, however, only about half are estimated to be paid, and in the non-profit, arts, and government sectors—which students at liberal arts colleges tend to pursue—those numbers are usually considerably smaller. According to Bennington’s Dean of Field Work Term Holly McCormack, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of internships that are both paid and directly align with the educational pursuits of Bennington students. By 1994, 50 percent of Bennington internships were paid. In 2004, that percentage had shrunk to 30 percent, and in 2014 only 10 percent of Bennington interns were paid. 

“Every year Bennington ensures there are paid internships available in the College’s database, but fewer internships offer compensation, even if they are essential to a student’s education,” McCormack explains. “Students with financial need must weigh opportunity and education costs against the actual cost of living.”

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Learning on the Job

For Ron Anahaw ’19, getting an internship with PEN America, a literary organization that champions free expression around the world, seemed like a perfect fit. With a Plan that concentrates his studies in literature and drama at Bennington, he was inspired by PEN America’s emphasis on supporting marginalized voices in literature. While in New York this past January and February, he began work with the dedicated team at PEN contributing to their fundraising efforts from working on donation processing to philanthropy communications.

“I was learning what it takes to keep a non-profit afloat,” he says. At the same time, however, he was challenged to  keep himself afloat—a reality he knew he’d confront when he chose to go to New york City for the internship. While Bennington provided a grant to help cover his rent and PEN gave him monthly Metrocards for transportation, his money did not go far enough. “I’d never had to think about food so much. Like, ‘I have three chicken breasts in the fridge, is that enough to get me through the week?’”

His dilemma reflects challenges faced by students all around the country who are working unpaid internships. It is especially felt by students who choose to intern in cities where the cost of living has skyrocketed. Those same locations are often where the most desirable internships and jobs tend to be situated. For students like Anahaw, it’s a difficult choice. “It’s an amazing way to build your resume, but at the same time I know some friends of mine who would not be able to survive,” Anahaw says.

Internships as we know them are a relatively recent phenomenon. Bennington’s Field Work Term started at the time of the College’s founding in 1932, making it one of the oldest student internship programs in the country. Structured internships at other institutions only started to emerge more regularly by the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some universities, such as Northeastern, Drexel, and the University of Cincinnati, have long established co-op programs in which long periods of full-time work are part of the educational experience. Others have shorter programs that generally run part-time during the school year or summer. And not all internship programs were created to be a fully integrated element of a student’s education. While many business schools and others brought internship programs online in an effort to help boost their graduate’s resume, McCormack explains, “Bennington’s internship program comes from a pedagogical impulse: How do we broaden and deepen students’ learning?” 

That impulse not only changes the nature of the way Bennington structures the program, but it also places a greater responsibility on the institution to level the opportunities she says. “Students get out of the classroom and into the field so they can test out the concepts they are learning in class and return with a much more nuanced perspective. For many, the most critical thing they may learn is not only what they like to do, but also what they don’t like doing. That is just as important.”

Ideally, exploration and testing align with developing a deep set of skills and networks, but often students need a leg up during FWT. That leg up, for many, comes from family. Webb Crawford ’18 came to Bennington to study music composition, but the Brooklyn native was mindful of the fact that she might need a more practical skill to lean on after graduation so she spent her first Field Work Term in Brooklyn (where she could live at home) working with two women who build and restore stringed instruments. “Composition is not really a money maker,” she says. “As a guitarist, I was drawn to working on guitars. I thought I could better understand the instrument and have a job I could pursue coming out of school.”

For students taking on unpaid internships, there is often a delicate balancing act between pursuing their passions and managing practicalities. Crawford’s instrument-building workshop in Brooklyn was unpaid. “If I didn’t have family in New York, it would have been totally unaffordable for me,” she says. “If your family is well connected and wealthy you can find incredible opportunities and fund yourself to go to Copenhagen—but if you are not the kind of kid who comes from wealth or can live at home for free, it’s a problem.”

Many students need to hold in balance similar questions when pursuing an internship: will they be paid, will there be public or other transportation available, how much will it cost to live near or at an internship location? What many may not realize is that having to consider these factors may have an impact on one's educational possibilities and post-graduation job outlook.

The Equality Imperative

According to a 2012 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, employers ranked internships as the number one attribute they looked for when hiring college graduates—beating out college major and GPA.

In keeping with that fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) student survey last year found students who completed internships were more likely to receive job offers and higher salaries than those who didn’t. And when it comes to hiring, there is a difference between paid and unpaid internships. 

Students working in paid internships are 15 percent more likely than those interning for free to secure a job after they graduate. What’s more, those working in paid internships are also more likely to have a greater starting salary—they will earn on average $10,000 more than their peers who worked unpaid internships. 

And yet a smaller survey of college students by NACE found that while unpaid internships correlated with lower salaries, compared to paid internships, students participating in them reported better outcomes in “confirming or rejecting career interests” and “setting and attaining career goals.” In addition, the same survey found paid internships were more significant in skills development, but unpaid internships were more significant in increasing academic understanding. “There is absolutely value in unpaid internships,” says NACE spokesperson Mimi Collins. “It’s just not necessarily in terms of employment.” 

Given that value, colleges and education observers have begun to worry that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may lose out on the opportunity to take internships if they are unpaid. Over the past 20 years, college demographics have changed dramatically, with an explosion of first-generation college students and students more likely to come from challenged financial circumstances.

If internships are primarily going to students who don’t need financial aid or who aren’t students of color or the first in their family to go to college, then it only creates a further bifurcation between the haves and have-nots in education. Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis 

How We Got Here: An Off-Campus View of the New Normal

Unpaid internships increased after the economy crashed in 2008, when budgets for both for-profit and non-profit companies tightened. However, the rate of unpaid internships has only risen slightly despite the economic recovery seen over the last eight years. 

“The norms have changed,” Ross Eisenbrey, vice president at The Economic Policy Institute explains. “Thirty years ago an unpaid internship was rare. Now in fashion, film, television, and radio, it’s hard to find a paid internship.” 

In an attempt to stem that tide, the Department of Labor issued guidelines in 2010 spelling out six criteria for-profit employers of a certain size must meet to offer an unpaid internship legally—including, that it be primarily educational, benefit the intern rather than the employer, and not displace any regular employees. Starting in 2013, students and recent graduates began bringing class-action lawsuits against major employers, they said violated those guidelines, including Condé Nast, Harper’s Bazaar, Gawker Media, NBC Universal, and Fox Searchlight pictures. Condé Nast settled for $5.8 million (between $700 and $1,900 for each intern), and NBC Universal for $6.4 million.

The Fox Searchlight case went to U.S. District Court, which ruled that it was violating labor standards and that interns were entitled to back pay. The company appealed the decision, however, which was overturned by the 2nd District Court of Appeals. That court rejected the six-point test in favor of a simpler test—whether the intern benefitted more than the employer. “It was really a pro-employer holding,” says David Yamada,  a professor and founding director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School. 

The response by many for-profit employers to the litigation has been to either end internships or convert them into paid opportunities. “When Condé Nast was sued for back pay, the first thing they did was close down what had been a very prestigious unpaid internship program,” says Yamada. “Very soon they announced a paid fellowship program. They didn’t want to miss out on bright students.” 

As a result of the lawsuit and guidelines, the number of paid internships offered by for-profit employers has increased over the past several years. However, of the internship opportunities that are exempt from the Department of Labor guidelines, only 42 percent of government internships and 33 percent of non-profit internships are paid.

Some employers pay interns on principle. The Maria Mitchell Association, a non-profit science institution on Nantucket Island, employs 20 interns during the summer to run science programs for kids as well as its aquarium and open house nights at its observatory. Not only does the Association provide housing on Nantucket (which can run $30,000 for a six-person apartment for the summer), but it also grants a stipend of $3,000 per student for living expenses. 

“Without the interns, we would not be able to open these buildings and operate in the summer,” says Executive Director Dave Gagnon. “They provide mentorship to young people and education for our visitors. It only makes sense to take some of our income from that and pay the folks who make it possible.” 

On the other hand, the organization is not able to pay students who come for Field Work Term to do astronomy research in January and February, when the non-profit isn’t bringing in revenue. “We hope in the future that we can find some grant money to pay for these in-between students,” says Gagnon.

Given that the greatest number of Bennington students tend to focus on the humanities and the arts means the College has a higher percentage of unpaid internships than most schools. “It’s simply not feasible for many of those organizations to pay, even if they wanted to,” says McCormack. 

Small non-profits like PEN America rely on interns as an essential part of their work but are also limited by the funding available to them. “Interns are here every day doing research on free expression developments around the world and sharing them with our hundreds of members to make sure the issue stays at the forefront of their minds,” says Communications Director Sarah Edkins. But, she says, “as a non-profit organization, we simply don’t have the resources to pay interns.” 

Edkins says some of the ways PEN compensates its interns is by trying to give them work that they feel contributes in a substantial way to the organization—and is an entrée to the New York literary world. “What they get here are really excellent references,” she says. “We have former interns that we now see working at Penguin, Random House, or Google.”

For employers who aren’t able to offer compensation, McCormack works with them to see if there are other benefits they can provide—such as housing, or lunches, or reimbursement for expenses, and works with her team to also start conversations with students early about what kind of resources they can bring to bear, helping students leverage their networks to find housing with friends and family. “For students who are less resourced, we ask how we can help level the playing field and use the Bennington alumni and parent network,” McCormack explains.

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Endowing Equal Opportunities

In order to make unpaid internships more viable, many colleges have begun raising money for stipends. Gifts to support Bennington’s Field Work Term have increased in the last year, but the College still has a ways to go in order to meet students’ needs.

Last year, Bennington awarded $67,750 in Field Work Term grants to 126 students—five times the amount the College awarded five years ago. However, students requested $215,443, leaving a significant gap between what the College was able to provide and what students actually need.

“The education and postgraduate benefits of Field Work Term are clear, but what has also become clear is that most employers are not paying students for internships any longer at a time when they’re more important than ever. If we are serious about our commitment to students we must do everything we can to equalize the opportunities and experiences so essential to a Bennington education,” President Mariko Silver explains. 

But making that case with alumni who participated in wholly different economic and job landscapes can be challenging for institutions like Bennington. Although alumni understand the importance of FWT, they also understand it in a totally different context. 

Bennington’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement Matt Rizzo says the FWT program is a fundraising priority for the College, as evidenced by the high volume of student grant applications and the relatively small amount of financial resources that are currently available. “Field Work Term is one of the distinguishing features of the Bennington education—and one of the most innovative internship programs in the country. It requires students to research and secure positions that are of interest to them and appropriately fit their Plan, as well as solving logistical details. The process itself is a tremendous learning experience for our students. We ask a lot of them, and because of these requirements students should never be in a position to turn down their top choice because of financial constraints. A significant portion of FWT grants are funded by private philanthropy from Bennington alumni and parents, and there is a great opportunity to enhance the program so that no student ever has to pass on a FWT that best fits their academic Plan.

Cash-strapped organizations are also doing their part. At the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Visual Art Coordinator Kristan Kennedy stretches her curator’s budget to provide lunches and travel to students when they are on the job. For her last Bennington intern, she added a bigger perk—opening up her own home to her intern. “I got the sense that the intern wouldn’t be able to come at all because of the struggle to find housing,” she says. “I said, I have this if she wants to take it and go out on a limb.” 

Kennedy is still in touch with all of her past Bennington interns, who have “become like family,” she says. “It’s not just about unpacking boxes and hanging things on the wall. A lot of times we say we are curating people. With a small organization of nine people, interns attend the same meeting as the executive director and curators and are assigned to specific projects, researching them, visiting artist sites, and helping build the exhibition.” she says. “Suddenly, they are face to face with the kinds of artists they are learning about or may want to become and [because] they are treated as equals, they rise to the occasion pretty quickly.”

Whether an internship is paid or unpaid, says McCormack, she reminds employers one of the most important things to do is find a balance between the routine work that keeps an organization running, and projects that allow students to grow. “It’s fine to have an element of the stereotypical copying and making coffee—everyone has got to pay their dues,” says McCormack. “But students need to be engaged in doing meaningful work that advances the work of the organization, even if in a small way.”