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Peers and parents alike tell students at Harvard and elsewhere that summer internship opportunities at organizations ranging from The New Yorker to the White House are priceless. Unfortunately, more often than not, they are also payless.
In recent years, unpaid internships have become more and more popular among college students seeking summer jobs. But on the tails of the surge of popularity has come a matching inundation of complaints. Harvard should respond by ensuring that students in need receive funding for their internship aspirations. Unpaid internships rely on a captive labor market: Companies who deny pay to student members of the workforce contribute to an unfair system centered on exploiting the vulnerable.
No student should feel forced to forgo an exciting summer opportunity due to financial concerns, especially not a student at an institution as fully endowed with resources and riches as Harvard. Though Harvard’s Institute of Politics gives 100 lucky students the chance to participate in its Director’s Internship Program every summer, providing its grantees with a $4,000 stipend for their efforts, the vast majority of the student body cannot snag a coveted spot. What’s more, even those fortunate enough to serve as Director’s Interns may only do so for one summer. Come the next, they may feel as down and out as those who never received the stipend in the first place. Harvard’s Office of Career Services offers other sources of funding, but mostly in the international sector, and domestically only when jobs conform to specific criteria.
Harvard should engage in a concentrated effort to develop more programs of a similar nature. When it comes to determining which students receive grants, Harvard should look to those who demonstrate financial need.
Harvard should change, but more importantly, so should the myriad companies and organizations that recruit students to work for free. When so many students flock to jobs at high-profile organizations, others begin to believe that their resumes will appear sparse and unimpressive should they do anything less highfalutin, dooming their shot at success after graduation. These concerns may be exaggerated, but companies certainly do look to summer experience when hiring permanent employees out of college. As a result, students submit themselves to unjust labor practices, in which workweeks more than 40 hours long do not lead to a single dollar of pay. Students who do take these jobs risk financial distress; others cannot take them at all.
Harvard, colleges like it, and organizations across the nation should support internships that pay as much in money as they do in intangibles. At a minimum, they should pay enough to make those intangibles—career prospects, experience, networking—accessible to all who deserve them.
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