The ultimate justice of unpaid college internships is a matter of debate. Some argue that it’s unfair to expect anyone to do work, no matter how negligible, for no compensation. Others suggest that class credit is good enough. A common argument made by some economists, and a hell of a lot of career services staff, is that while it’s perhaps financially difficult to take an unpaid internship, in the long run it pays off because people eventually get jobs. These unpaid internships give you “experience” that employers who hire people for real jobs actually want.

Not really. According to this piece by Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic:

The National Association of Colleges and Employers has asked graduating seniors if they’ve received a job offer and if they’ve ever had either a paid or unpaid internship. And for three years, it’s reached the same conclusion: Unpaid internships* don’t seem to give college kids much of a leg up when it comes time to look for employment.

This year, NACE queried more than 9,200 seniors from February through the end of April. They found that 63.1 percent of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer. But only 37 percent of former unpaid interns could say the same — a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned.


Now it is worth pointing out that some unpaid internships are probably more useful than others. While perhaps the unpaid internship in general isn’t that much more useful than not interning, internships at a few very prestigious places might be kind of useful to someone’s career. But we don’t have data to indicate whether or not that’s true, however.

What’s more, it turns out that even when they do get jobs after, those with unpaid internship experience actually make less money than those who had paid internships.

“Unpaid interns of the world! Get up and leave the office,” Weissmann writes. “You have nothing to lose. Literally. Nothing.”

*I am happy to report that the Washington Monthly is no longer a part of this market. The magazine’s internships are now paid.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer