Sunday, June 04, 2017


Scholarships for Internships

The 80’s weren’t always known for great ideas.  They brought us the mullet, Wang Chung, and a political turn against the very idea of the public sector.  But they weren’t all bad.  One idea they brought was scholarships to provide stipends for unpaid internships.

I know that because I was the lucky recipient of one.  In the summer of 1989, I received a stipend from a program at my college that made it possible for financial aid students, such as myself, to afford to do an unpaid internship.  I used it to do an internship in the mayor’s office, which turned out to be a great life choice; it was where I discovered that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.  For a poli sci major about to enter the senior year of college, that’s incredibly valuable information.  Some people practice law for years before figuring that out.  It saved me untold amounts of time, money, and misery.  That’s a stipend well-spent.

Since then, unpaid internships have become de facto requirements to be competitive in many fields.  But low-income students are at an obvious disadvantage.  They can’t afford to work for free.  While their more fortunate fellow students build up credentials that register as “merit” in the marketplace, they work jobs that don’t “count,” and fall progressively farther behind.  

In a more perfect world, internships would be paid, as a matter of course.  But that’s not where we are.  

For students, internships serve several purposes.  They serve as exposure to a possible field, either confirming interest or, as in my case, warning them away before it’s too late.  They can provide some warts-and-all exposure to the daily realities of work in a given field.  They also serve as opportunities to build professional networks, and, in a non-trivial number of cases, as unofficial auditions for permanent jobs.  

For employers, internships provide a chance to kick the tires on prospective employees in a low-risk setting.  Yes, they provide cheap labor, but there are supposed to be legal safeguards on that.  Ideally, they provide infusions of new perspectives on a regular basis, and give employers a chance to maintain currency with the outside world.  And some employers simply enjoy the teaching aspect of internships.  

Internships in non-profits and government agencies have existed for decades, and the rules around them are pretty well-developed (even if sometimes imperfectly enforced).  In for-profit companies, the rules are a little trickier, and the potential ethical dilemmas a little stickier.  But I know that internships happen in them; as long as that’s true, putting some weight on the scale in favor of low-income students strikes me as well worth trying.

For a low-income student who wants to go into a creative field, but whose economic needs would otherwise compel doing hourly work in low-end retail, this could be life-changing.  And it wouldn’t be all that hard to set up.  Most community college foundations are experienced in working with donors to set parameters for scholarships, so they know the drill.  And I’ve never seen a Career Services office that wouldn’t appreciate opening up more internships to students who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

As 80’s ideas go, this one comes closer to The Replacements than to Wang Chung.  It may not be as well known, but it’s worth checking out.  For the right student at the right time, it could make an enormous difference. 

In engineering and technical fields, all internships should be paid—it is the standard for the field, and any employer ducking that should be regarded as cheating scum and not allowed interns from any college.

i know that it is different for internships with non-profits, for whom interns are just another form of volunteer labor, which they may have to rely heavily on for much of their staffing. There it would make sense to have fellowships for interns, as a way of subsidizing the non-profits.
I'll echo what my favorite pumpless gastation said above. In the sciences, there are well established programs (possibly under threat with the proposed Trump budget cuts) for paid summer research internships but I've never heard of any in industry. Which is too bad, because students get the idea that the only career options are in university for federal lab research. (They also get zero experience teaching, leaving them unprepared to look for a CC job, but that is a different story.)

I wonder if we need a tax incentive to have more paid internships with businesses, like the ones I see students get in engineering. Maybe they already exist, but a scholarship donation is already deductible and would be a good alternative.

If you want info about one example, look for the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) run by the NSF. It has been running for many decades and, in some cases, has served the mission of helping a student discover that research is not for them before they waste several years in grad school. The REU is usually for Juniors, but there is also one (might be run by DOE) specifically for CC students.

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