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Unpaid Internships Are Worthless for the Interns

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- As an undergraduate in the late 1990s, I made the decision to transfer halfway through my college career from a private university to a state school.

This decision was motivated partially by finances. Despite having a half-scholarship, a full Pell Grant and a combination of other need- and merit-based financial aid awards, I still could not afford tuition and fees. Additionally, I wanted to do a double major in English and journalism, but my university offered no journalism program and hardly any journalism courses.

After I transferred to a public college, I was disheartened to find that a main requirement of the journalism major was to work a full-time internship during one of my summers. Despite being enrolled in a relatively more affordable school, I still needed to work close to half-time during the school year and full-time during my summers to make ends meet, as I had no parental contribution to my post-secondary education.

I opted to minor in journalism instead, which required the same course load as the major, but only a half-time internship. Even so, I was unable to find a paying internship or an unpaid internship with a flexible enough schedule to allow me to work a second paying job. Since my financial circumstances required I work for money, I wound up graduating without completing this final requirement of my minor.

Now, well over a decade after I got my bachelor's degree, the unpaid internship has become a staple of many undergraduate and even graduate programs across the country.

It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million students work internships each year. Of those, approximately 20% are unpaid and offer no academic credit. Other sources suggest that unpaid internships may even be more common. Of all the internships listed on Internships.com in 2010, two-thirds were unpaid.

Proponents of the unpaid internship have boasted that what they lack in financial benefits they compensate for by offering valuable work experience that will make students competitive in the job market once they graduate.

Many disagree.

The Economic Policy Institute argues that unpaid internships not only institutionalize socioeconomic disparities by shutting out students who can't afford to work for free, but that they offer incentives for corporations to take advantage of the system by replacing paid workers with a revolving door of unpaid interns.

"Unpaid work is exploitation," says EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey in a blog post. "It is illegal, and colleges and universities should reexamine their role in promoting it."