Last week, Ross Perlin at the NYT wrote about the ethical, legal and educational issues surrounding the pervasive phenomenon of unpaid internships in the American college experience.
I kept waiting for Perlin to get to the crux of my beef with the unpaid internship–that encouraging participation in unpaid programs exacerbates economic disparity between students of different classes–but only briefly, in his closing line, does he get where I wanted him to go.
For K-12 students, academics describe something called the “summer learning loss,” or the “summer slide.” Summer vacation for affluent students often includes enrichment activities (camp, lessons, travel, frequent trips to the library), activities to which their low-income peers don’t have access. Come September, the achievement gap that had been narrowing during 9 months of shared classroom learning has widened. This repeats until (one hopes) graduation.
I imagine that unpaid internships unfortunately function the same way for college students. They undoubtedly offer valuable learning opportunities in specific fields as well as general “professional development.” Perhaps more crucial to longterm success, internships are often the big ticket items on the resume of any self-respecting recent grad. For low-income college students with familial responsibilities, unpaid schmoozing/networking/carrying coffee isn’t feasible without outside financial support.
Top notch universities around the country are making concerted, admirable efforts to reach a broader range of applicants with minority recruiting initiatives, affirmative action, and generous financial aid. But, as Perlin finally describes, “Colleges have turned internships into a prerequisite for the professional world but have neither ensured equal access to these opportunities, nor insisted on fair wages for honest work.” It’s great to level the admissions playing field, but if the post-graduation field is a bumpy mess of haves and have-nots, who cares?
We all know that classroom learning is only one small sliver of the “college experience.” Universities and colleges are consciously and rightly trying to extend that sliver to disadvantaged groups. But if they neglect to provide access (through summer grants to offset unpaid work) to the other pieces of the educational pie, internships being a particularly large and advantageous slice, that “summer slide” can rear its ugly head once again.
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