College Connect Fall 2018: Unpaid Internships Pose Financial Questions for Students

By Peter Prybylski

Every year students seek internships, work studies or other professional arrangements with a simple goal: to gain valuable work experience in their fields.

However, there is often a bigger question than time, place and duties hanging over the job-seekers’ heads: How much money is in it?

As U.S. student debt grows past the $1.6 trillion mark, students who are looking for summer work often grapple with the choice between a standard summer job and unpaid work in their field. These students weigh the benefit of experience against their personal finance situation, and sometimes struggle with how they measure up against their peers who found paid internships.

One UGA researcher conducted a survey and examined UGA internship data to quantify the differences between student experiences in paid and unpaid positions. Andrew Crain, a career advisor and doctoral student measured the perceived benefit of paid versus unpaid internships in his 2016 paper “Exploring the Implications of Unpaid Internships,” which was published in the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Journal.

According to Crain’s study, UGA students who participated in unpaid internships rather than paid internships were still likely to rate their experience as being beneficial. They were, however, 11 percent less likely to give the experience top marks than their paid counterparts. Students in paid positions were also more likely to rate the experience as being significant to their professional development, where unpaid students would rate the experience as educational.

“We always encourage students to pursue paid internships when they can,” Crain said. “[However], it’s really important to evaluate on a case by case basis. There can be unpaid internships that are really valuable… I don’t want students to totally discount one or the other.”

For Marianna Hiles, the questions posed by unpaid summer internships proved no obstacle. The UGA freshman spent the summer before her first year at college completing two internships, both unpaid.

An English and psychology double major, Hiles spent the summer writing donor stories for the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia and working on social media for Dawn Randolph’s campaign for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Hiles described the experiences as beneficial but recognized the role of her family’s financial status and the Zell Miller Scholarship in her ability to pursue unpaid work.

“I don’t think people should feel shame if they can’t have an internship that a lot of people get because of family connections because I had a lot of that,” Hiles said.

According to the statistics Crain provided about UGA students, 60 percent of internships are paid. Overall, 65 percent of students participate in internships. Crain also said a student’s probability of finding a paid internship versus an unpaid one depends on their major, with certain fields having a greater supply of unpaid positions than paid.

Though they are not considered as beneficial as their paid counterparts, Crain said in his paper, “While unpaid internships remain controversial … they are not likely to go away any time soon.”

Peter Prybylski is a journalism student at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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