Schools have long granted stipends for stints in nonprofits and the arts, where unpaid labor is common, but now they are paying the way for students to work at profit-making enterprises, including a New York money-management firm, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm and even a General Motors Co. GM -3.03% plant.
The question of unpaid internships is more complicated than it seems. Yes, it’s troubling that young people are expected to work for no pay. Unpaid internships also tend to benefit those with parents wealthy enough to subsidize them. But many of these positions also allow students to gain the skills and connections necessary for future employment—especially in industries that may not be able to accommodate beginner workers who require a good deal of training and investment. For many professional careers, an unpaid internship is often the first rung on the ladder. Eliminating the practice altogether could make it harder for many young people to find paying work.And now is a good time for universities to make a move. With tuition soaring while job prospects stagnate, the higher education industry has come under increasing pressure to prove to students and their parents that its degrees are worth the price. Those colleges footing the bill for internships are financing opportunities for students to enhance their skills, knowledge, and chances for gainful employment. If schools spend some of the money that otherwise would have gone toward administrators and fancy amenities on programs that could give students a leg up in the job market, they can make a much stronger case for their own value. It’s a smart move, both for the colleges and the students they help.[Mortar boards image courtesy of Shutterstock]