Are Your (internship) Dreams Still Free?

Internships are essential. I am sure that you have heard that before. But how far should you go to get one?

Would you pay for the opportunity to work an internship?

Even if it meant you didn’t get paid?

Recently one of the LinkedIn groups I belong to passed around some articles and debated the idea of purchasing the opportunity to intern. Organizations such as University of Dreams will help you find an internship-for a cost.

This isn’t a new idea as this is something that has been going on for at least the last four years. Last year, I learned about this phenomenon by reading this article in the New York Times.

But the topic does generate great interest. Noah Baron, a student who writes for the Huffington Post (@noahbaron) chronicled the struggles that middle class students (let alone lower class students) encounter when working an unpaid internship.

When I first read the New York Times article a year ago, I was surprised that people would pay to work for free. It seemed so counter to my beliefs. And then I found out how much they paid….

What’s the situation?

Parents are starting to pay to get their students prestigious internships either through online auctions or through third-party agencies.

These agencies work to develop the student’s employ-ability by giving them resume and interview training or by simply creating a resume and cover letter package for them. In many cases, students are directly placed and the agency either takes a percentage of the student’s pay or the parent’s pay a flat rate fee.

Other organizations have started to sell unpaid internships online during a time when donations are down. Non-profit organizations that are in need have started creating internships with the intent to sell them. In a 2009 article, the Wall Street Journal highlighted this phenomenon including an organization that sold a one week music production internship for $12,000.

No, that’s not a typo…… week for $12K.

What do you get for your $?

Services such as University of Dreams state that their services allow organizations to reach out to smaller schools that are farther away. In many cases, students were able to gain international internships that might not have been otherwise available. Parents see these opportunities as part of their student’s education versus “buying up” opportunities. Furthermore, the organizations that provide these services say that most of their clients are middle-class families who make significant sacrifices.  Housing, transportation and other costs are typically built into the fee.

At first, I thought that this was a cut and dry situation that I was against. But now I wonder, is this the new “summer vacation?”  Is this something that is not completely black or white? Is there a grey area?

As someone who assists students with resumes, cover letters, and interviewing on a weekly basis,  I wonder where the gap exists between our services and  the student  who wants to intern in Barcelona in the fashion industry?

I have  many questions and I thought what better way to get them answered than to ask you, the readers. You may be a student, career center employee, a parent, or someone directly related to one of these organizations.

Tell me:

Where  do you think paid internships are heading and how far is too far?

Are parents helping by providing these opportunities for their children?

Is this fair?

Is this indicative of our culture and society?


Joe is a career counselor at  San Jose State University. His areas of specialization include: experiential education, resume development, interview preparation, job search strategy, and assessment inventories. In his role, he also serves as the community manager for the Career Center’s social media outlets. Connect with Joe on Twitter or follow samplings of his work via the SJSU Career Center Blog and Facebook fan page.

Related posts:

  1. The Importance of an Internship
  2. Preparing for an Internship
  3. So, You’ve Got an Internship. Now What?

5 Responses to “Are Your (internship) Dreams Still Free?”

  1. avatar Greg de Lima says:

    The points that you mention are spot on! And as a student I think paying for an internship defies the purpose of why they exist. We don’t auction off the real job, do we?
    I had a friend who paid $15K to work with Deloitte through an internship company. As a middle class student, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to get to do something like that! These are not fair ways to go about finding jobs…the rich get richer and the poor stay poor, and that’s BS.These umbrella parents are able to give their kids everything they could ever dream of, but they kids don’t learn how to do a damn thing for themselves, though that’s not true for everyone, it does come into play.
    As far as paid internships are concerned, you should always be willing to compensate, even if it’s less that the true job’s pay, offer something monetary; Academic credit only goes so far.

  2. avatar Joe Bucher says:

    Greg, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I really like your point that jobs are not auctioned or sold, so why are internships? Strangely, I hadn’t thought of that point.
    I am interested in hearing about other’s experience with these types of organizations as I want to make it clear that I am not 100% against these types of organizations. The existence of this type of service leads me to believe that there are gaps that are being filled through these organizations. However, I do agree that not everyone can afford this type of service, so it does lead to some debate.
    Thanks again for commenting, Greg.

  3. Last summer, I attended The Fund for American Studies’ Institute for Political Journalism, a program similar to University of Dreams–but as far as I’m aware the program costs primarily covered housing and two classes at Georgetown (and surely some administrative costs). Granted, the program also guarantees internship placement for their students. I could have never attended if not for a generous scholarship, yet most of the other students I lived with were funded by their parents. I also secured my own internship because I have very specific career development goals and needed additional funding in the form of an internship-sponsored scholarship.

    That being said, I can’t imagine actually paying for this type of program. With some initiative, students can just as easily create these programs for themselves, saving money and creating an experience tailored to their needs (assuming they can afford to do so, of course). I often became frustrated with my peers for treating the program like some kind of extended vacation that they could flippantly add to their resumes.

    These programs, while valuable for those who can afford them, are doing an absolute disservice to economically disadvantaged students. But what do they care? They’re in it for the money, which is all too indicative of our society. I feel fortunate that I had a job to return to the following semester after I left the summer in the red, but I feel equally irritated that many intelligent, motivated people cannot seize these same opportunities because of money.

    I keep telling myself that people who require their internships to be paid for by mom and dad enter the workforce with handicaps in the form of superficial work experience. But when mom and dad have those economic kinds of connections, they inevitably have work connections, too. It’s not fair, but that’s life. I only hope that the path I’ve chosen for myself will prove more rewarding than asking my parents to write out a check.

  4. avatar Joe Bucher says:

    Meghan, thank you so much for sharing your personal experience with internship programs. You shared some great insight and knowledge that you have learned during this experience that I wanted to make sure to highlight:
    1. Whether you seek outside assistance from an organization or find an internship more traditionally the main point is that internships can provide you value and experience beyond something to put on a resume.
    2. There are many different ways to find and even fund your internship opportunity. In addition to scholarships and other financial assistance, students can tailor and then pitch internship opportunities to an organization-especially if their career path is quite specific.
    3. We each have our own values that govern what will help us find career satisfaction. There are many different values and no value is “better” than any other. However, it is important to know what your own values are so that you can achieve your own satisfaction.
    Thanks again for sharing; I enjoyed reading about your success.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • Dan Schawbel

    Dan Schawbel, the founder of the Student Branding Blog, is a world renowned personal branding expert, the international bestselling author of Me 2.0, as well as the publisher of the Personal Branding Blog.

  • Connect With Dan

  • Chelsea Rice

    Chelsea Rice is the editor-in-chief of the Student Branding Blog. She began her work for just before graduating from Boston University, where she studied journalism and minored in international relations.

  • Connect With Chelsea

  • Recognition

    • Recommended resource - The Washington Post
    • "A terrific way for students to learn about branding" - Lindsey Pollak
    • "Worth checking out" - Psychology Today
    • HR World's top 100 management blogs