Do Unpaid Internships Benefit College Students?

Posted By Terri Williams on February 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm
Do Unpaid Internships Benefit College Students?

To our readers: Today GoodCall® examines internships and how they can work out for students. Below, writer Terri Williams takes a look at unpaid internships and whether they’re good for participants. Earlier, writer Dave Landry Jr. identified some of the “hot” places to get paid internships and the benefits to students.


It should come as no surprise that internships in general can be mutually beneficial to college students and potential employers. But what about unpaid internships? They obviously can be good for a company, but do college students benefit?

A new report, funded by the NACE Foundation, examines the benefits and disadvantages of unpaid internships:


  • Students who participated in unpaid internships were more likely to say the experience helped them to verify or change career interests, set career goals, and network.
  • Students who participated in unpaid internships were more likely to say the experience was beneficial in understanding academic work.


  • Students who participated in unpaid internships were less likely to say the experience contributed to professional skill development.
  • Students who participated in unpaid internships took longer to find a job after they graduated.
  • Students who participated in unpaid internships were 11 percent less likely to report high levels of satisfaction with their first job.

What unpaid internships are missing

The paid side of the equation is much different. As companies compete for the best workers, many spare no expense in their efforts to lure interns into becoming full-time employees. In addition to monetary compensation, some companies offer interns health insurance, retirement savings, and vacation time. Ernst & Young, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and KPMG have been ranked the top employers of recent graduates and interns.

Among college students who get paid, the 2016 Guide to Compensation for Interns and Co-ops compensation by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that average wages are as follows:

Intern Hourly Wage By Degree and Year of Study Mean Median
1st Year – Associate $12.96 $11.50
2nd Year – Associate $13.71 $12.75
Freshman – Bachelor’s Degree $15.52 $15.00
Sophomore – Bachelor’s Degree $16.90 $16.20
Junior – Bachelor’s Degree $18.31 $17.30
Senior – Bachelor’s Degree $19.10 $18.50
1st Year – Master’s Degree $24.21 $23.29
2nd Year – Master’s Degree $26.33 $26.00
Doctoral $31.25 $34.50


Yea or nay on unpaid internships?

Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. a management research, training and consulting firm, believes that an unpaid internship is better than no internship at all. “The problem with unpaid internships is that they are often a method to try to get free work out of young people, although they are supposed to be learning opportunities with some work thrown in.”

Tulgan says there are several advantages to paid internships. “They tend to be handled more rigorously by the employer – better planning, better calibration of assignments, better management, and of course compensation.”

But even when there is no monetary benefit, students may want to consider what they can gain from this arrangement. “Unpaid internships are opportunities to learn, grow, build relationships, acquire experience, and gain perspective,” Tulgan concludes.

However, Susan M. Tellem, APR, RN, BSN, a partner at Tellem Grody PR, Inc, is vehemently opposed to unpaid internships. She believes that too often, students perform such tasks as picking up coffee, mopping floors, or babysitting – and she adds that even real employees get paid to do these menial chores.

Tellem says she has witnessed this type of abuse in the PR industry, and believes that these types of activities don’t fit the Labor Department’s requirement that unpaid internships should be beneficial to the intern and should be in line with vocational training.

Personal perspectives

GoodCall® also spoke with two graduates who participated in internships while they were students. Katherine L. Garcia, online marketing manager at Web Marketing Therapy, did unpaid internships in college, and she thought the experience was valuable. “Even though there is no pay, there is still a valuable exchange – real-world education.”

Garcia says it’s an opportunity for students to operate in a professional environment while gaining hands-on experience. “The only time when unpaid internships are no good is when the intern is not learning tools they can apply in their professional career.” And Garcia says she has been in that situation before. “If an intern has this experience, they should quit right away.”

On the other hand, Sharlys D. Leszczuk, an assistant account executive at Feintuch Communications, has participated in two paid internships and advises students against accepting unpaid internships. “An internship is a time to learn, grow and figure out what you want to do, but the work you will be doing is valuable to the company and deserves compensation,” Leszczuk says.

“I went to Hofstra University and the commute to and from New York City cost me $26 a day round trip.” While Leszczuk was able to find positions that paid her hourly, if this is not an option, she believes that interns should at least be given a travel and/or food stipend.

“Any company that wants to hire an intern to work for absolutely nothing does not value the intern’s time, work, or contribution to the company,” Leszczuk says. “There are plenty of paid opportunities, either via travel and food stipends or hourly wages, that will serve students just as well.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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