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Editorial

Internship dilemma

Finances force some students to forgo experience if the work is unpaid. Scholarships can help.

August 06, 2011

They're a familiar summer sight in the halls of government and corporate offices: interns who are fresh-faced, industrious — and prosperous.

It's the "prosperous" that understandably upsets students, parents and educators. Because an increasing number of internships are unpaid, poor and some middle-class students are denied the opportunity to learn and network (not necessarily in that order). The Washington Post reports that this is beginning to change.

Several colleges have established scholarships for internships, and the grants can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Many of the programs fund only public-interest internships.

Funds for the scholarships are drawn both from official sources and panels formed by parents and alumni. "We just want students to have the opportunity," said a William and Mary College professor who helps to coordinate internship assistance. "We hated to see them pass up on an internship because it was unpaid and they had to weigh waiting tables, on one hand, or getting experience."

Sometimes, admittedly, that experience is disappointingly trivial. But in other cases internships can be as challenging as entry-level jobs. And even internships that concentrate on the mundane can yield helpful contacts.

It's heartening that colleges and universities are finding ways to enable students of limited means to accept unpaid internships away from home. But there is a catch: Most of the colleges mentioned by the Post are elite institutions that can afford to subsidize unpaid internships, even if the funds are provided through special programs organized by alumni or parents.

At other colleges, funding for internship subsidies must come out of the same strapped resources used to pay for financial aid for tuition. A university's decision to choose classroom instruction over internship assistance might seem unfair to many students, but that must be the priority, even at a time when many liberal-arts schools are flirting with providing professional education.

While it won't close the income gap between students who can afford to accept unpaid work and those who cannot, scholarship aid for internships does increase the number of students of modest means who can ply their skills in the "real world." Another means to that end would be for companies — and, yes, government — to make more paid internships available.

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