The difference between a paid and unpaid internship? A job later

Students may want to think twice about working for free: interns who get paid are almost twice as likely as their unpaid counterparts to get a job offer when they graduate.

Wanna get a job when you get out of college? You better get one while you’re in college.

In study after study, including one done by Marketplace, employers routinely say that internships are among the top reasons for hiring a grad. But what looks like a job, often doesn’t pay like a job. Lots of interns work for free and get college credit.

Students may want to think twice about working for free. The National Association of Colleges and Employers says interns who get paid are almost twice as likely as their unpaid counterparts to get a job offer when they graduate.

Tamerra Griffin, a grad student studying journalism at NYU, scored an internship this spring* at Ebony.com. But her time there comes with one tiny drawback.

“Unfortunately, I have not been paid," she says.

Griffin is in good company. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, nearly 30 percent of college students take unpaid internships. The hope, of course, is that Griffin’s summer at Ebony.com will help her land a real job, one with a paycheck, so she can pay off her student debt.

“Oh god. Between undergrad and grad, it’ll be probably $100,000. I know. I know,” she says.

Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation, says when students work at unpaid internships, they’re receiving a negative wage.

“It’s worse than working for free. They’re actually paying to work,” he says.

Carey notes many students who get credit instead of a paycheck also have to pay tuition. While some schools do a great job supervising internships, he says not all provide enough oversight to ensure internships provide meaningful educational experiences for students. “Other colleges, quite frankly, just cash the tuition check. It’s like free money for them.”

Christina Isnardi, a student studying film and political science at NYU, says she was disappointed with her experience as an intern on the film set of a large production company.

“I was just doing menial tasks for the duration of my time," she says. "I had to press elevator buttons for hours, I had to watch equipment for 12-14 hours a day.”

Isnardi took her experience and founded Fair Pay for Interns at NYU, a student protest group.

“I was frustrated because I had to pay my school money for a credit, over $1,000, to work at this other company, and I wasn’t given an educational experience for it,” she says.

NYU says its internships are vetted and if one doesn’t measure up a student can drop it like a class and get a refund. But there’s no way around the law that makes unpaid internships possible. If a student is getting credit than minimum wage rules don’t apply meaning they can be paid anything -- or nothing.

Jim Hughes, a professor of economics at Bates College, says the real problem is that it’s too easy for companies to go the nothing route.

“This isn’t the Dairy Freeze on the corner, this isn’t the mom-and-pop grocery store," says Hughes. "This isn’t some local business that might really have an argument that they might really not have the funds to pay someone over the summer. ”

Hughes doesn’t think colleges should be involved in student internships to begin with.

“Why is this our problem? If you want to hire this student, hire this student. If you don’t, don’t,” he says.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly mentioned the season of Tamerra Griffin's internship. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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