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.