Paying to Land an Unpaid Internship?

On the surface, it’s difficult to see the logic in paying to work for free. However, the economic downturn is driving many college students across the nation to shell out thousands to pay for the services of an internship placement company to locate internships for them — many of which are entirely unpaid.

Why? Because a college degree is often not enough to land a job right after college in a saturated job market teeming with bachelor’s degrees. This is especially true if a college student has their heart set on entering a competitive industry. To truly set themselves apart from the pack, new grads often need relevant work experience, and typical college jobs like bartending and waitressing don’t really make the cut. Internships have long been known to provide that experience while offering college credit at the same time. Also, there are too many students applying for too few internships, making it difficult to land an internship on your own.

A recent article in the Washington Post chronicled how this practice of paying to land an internship has long been common in D.C., but has only recently started to spread across the nation to other prominent cities. The article indicates that the good thing about internship placement companies is that they offer college students certain guarantees – first, that they will get an internship in the first place; second, that they will not get stuck doing clerical work that will offer them no educational benefit; and third, a promise that if the company or organization cuts their internship program, that the student will be placed into another internship. An added benefit is the convenience factor. Students won’t have to hunt down and apply for internships on their own because they are paying to have that work done for them.

The negative aspect of paying to get an internship is you still have no promise of getting a full-time paid position with the company or organization with which you interned, or any guarantee that the experience will help you get any job at all after college. It’s also possible that the college credit students earn in such internships may not actually transfer back to the university they attend.

Because most internship programs do count as college credit, many of the expenses — which in D.C. can range anywhere from $7,000 to $8,000 for a summer program — can be paid for using federal student aid or student loans. It remains to be seen whether this emerging trend will pick up steam and begin to replace more conventional ways of getting an internship, such as submitting an application (for free) and hoping for the best.

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