Internships are critical to a student's college experience. They give the opportunity to learn more about the daily assignments and responsibilities of a career and help students learn skills that are hard to teach in a classroom setting. The thing is, internships are time consuming and limit the opportunities one can pursue outside the internship at the same time. Because of that opportunity cost, or what you have to give up to participate in a given activity, more internships should be compensated.
Many internships are unpaid because they grant the student course credit. Many internship administrators think that because an internship is part of the school experience, students should be paying for the experience just like any other class. While that makes sense logically and economically (because a student has to put in this work whether they are compensated or not), it doesn't reflect that the intern grants utility to the organization, or that the intern is spending more time at an internship than in a normal class.
For example, a regular 3 credit hour class is going to meet for a maximum of 48 hours during a 15.5 week semester (Aug. 22 to Dec. 6 this semester). Meanwhile, an accredited School of Journalism and Mass Communications internship requires students to have worked a minimum of 140 hours over the course of a semester, despite only being worth 3 credit hours.
According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, over 70% of college students work while they are enrolled in college. By offering unpaid internships, organizations are excluding some of this university’s hardest working students that need to work in order to pay for school. This also leaves a wider application pool of students who want to work paid internships competing for a relatively small number of opportunities.
In order for a student to put in the effort required to really excel at their internship and provide the most benefit to the company, they need to be paid appropriately. With so many other things to focus on in college, an internship that only counts for class credit with a pass/fail grade is likely to be prioritized lower than other activities and coursework. If a student is being paid for their time, it shifts the focus from the organization, which is providing a service by taking on an intern, to the intern, who is actively working for the organization. This sense of responsibility also improves the internship for students because it makes them feel as if they, and their work, really matters. This might be part of the reason why, according to a CNBC article about internships rated by students, nine of the top 10 internships were paid.
If a student isn’t being paid, there isn’t much incentive for them to put in effort to help the organization other than the class credit. And as we see from the attendance rates of many of the classes in our school, for many students, doing well in a class does not provide enough motivation.
Just as in the rest of the job market, if you want truly good workers, you have to be willing to pay their wages.