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How unpaid internships destroy higher ed

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Posted: Sunday, October 23, 2011 12:00 am

I interned on Capitol Hill this spring. It was OK — I felt important because I wore a tie and "worked" for a senator. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I'd pull my fancy badge out of my fancy messenger bag and go through the fancy metal detector. The security guard and I would always trade a little "Hey, I know you, but not really" head tilt, and I'd wonder if he actually remembers me or just knows an intern when he sees one.

But this isn't a morality tale about treating blue-collar workers with respect — that guy made way more money this spring than I did — this is about me and all the other dummies who pay money for the right to do gopher work in Washington and across the country. This is about every cheap-skate employer who skirts federal labor law by enlisting undergrads to do the work of entry-level employees, and it's about the colleges across the country that allow it because they're so beholden to the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings.

I imagine the first internship probably seemed like a good idea. Some old rich guy was tired of spending six months training his new employees, so he convinced a college kid to donate a couple summers to the office. Moneybags didn't want to pay the kid — that would put him back at square one — so he convinced the local college to grant "academic credit" for the experience. Upon graduation, the kid would have a job waiting for him.

The moment that college agreed to cut corners by outsourcing education to an employer is the moment internships began destroying this country's higher education system.

This past spring, instead of paying a tenured professor to impart knowledge on my developing mind, the university assigned me an intern coordinator, whose primary duty was to make sure I actually worked at my internship. I paid the university more than $2,000 for six hours of academic credit and to join the prairie dog community of unpaid Congressional interns. We scurried around tunnels under the Capitol complex for a semester, delivering mail and avoiding senators (apex predator).

Sure, I learned a lot. I learned things I could never learn in a classroom, such as all the different ways constituents think Chipotle is pronounced. But college kids should be learning college stuff, not how to write business memos. Students spend their undergraduate careers competing for internships in a system that's ostensibly about a hands-on education, but is really about replacing entry-level employees with indentured servants: Impress your employer working gratis, and maybe you can buy your freedom with a post-graduation job offer.

Nobody complains, because everyone thinks they're benefiting from the current setup: Employers won't pay people to do gopher work when they can con undergraduates into doing it for free. Students won't stop applying for internships, because they know a bachelor's degree without a killer résumé is worth about as much as a fistful of Zimbabwean cash. Schools won't stop granting credit for unpaid internships because they're afraid of impeding graduates' job prospects.

Meanwhile, the country suffers because an entire generation of students is trading a real education for white-collar vocational school. Upperclassmen may lack critical thinking skills, but they sure as hell can dress for success.

As the economy sputters, this self-perpetuating cycle can only get worse. Struggling employers can't afford new hires, so they will rely more on interns who are increasingly desperate to snag a job after graduating from schools that will do anything to help alumni find work. And believe it or not, we're the lucky ones: The modern workplace claims to prioritize non-discriminatory hiring practices, but the system is already rigged against poor students because the opportunity cost of an unpaid internship is so high. Students must forego a semester or summer of wages and still scrape together tuition money just to even the playing field. What's the point of educating low-income students if they can't afford the internships necessary to get a white-collar job?

I'd argue the only group with a realistic chance to solve the problem is Congress, but of course that would be silly — they have interns like me to answer the phone when I call to complain about interns like me answering the phone.

Christopher Haxel is a senior English major. He can be reached at haxel@umdbk.com.

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