April 27, 2010

Leveling the Rat Race

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In the coming weeks, most students will depart East Hill and scatter across the globe, looking to expand their horizons and experience the world outside Cornell, at least for a few months. Some will travel, some will return home and some will work. Many will spend the summer laboring in their prospective job field for no pay and no reward aside from another line on their résumés — the infamous unpaid internship.

Unpaid internships have come under legal scrutiny lately; they violate minimum wage laws in many states, and many companies disregard the guidelines protecting unpaid interns and regulating the nature of the internships. Of course it is an unfair benefit for the companies that enjoy possibly illegal free labor, but even worse is the social stratification that results.

Unpaid internships undermine the advancement of social justice and equity. Not every family can afford for their children to live and work, often away from home, without any compensation. Children from families that can afford it will then have a leg up in the job market. The University does, for the most part, an admirable job in making a degree equally affordable to students from poorer families. But if the students graduate and are once again at a disadvantage to their wealthier classmates, the problem still exists.

With suddenly cash-strapped firms seeking cheap labor more and more often, expect the numbers of unpaid internships to continue to rise. Market forces will not weed out these internships, it will multiply them. So whose responsibility is it to protect against this divisive and unjust institution? Certainly, the companies who offer these positions have no incentive to include a paycheck in an internship package that hundreds, if not thousands, of career-crazy undergrads are already begging for. The government, though they have made mild attempts to do so, is largely unwilling to dictate the business practices of private companies. And the universities similarly lack the ability to effect such change. However, a university can and should generate other strategies to deal with the problems caused by rising numbers of unpaid internships.

Cornell should come up with creative ways to fund summer internships, which might be less expensive for students than taking summer classes, and certainly less expensive than a semester at Cornell.

The University could offer meaningful academic credit for internships. While this still does not put money in students’ pockets, it could help students graduate early, or allow working students to take lighter course loads.

Additionally, the University could institute a program of endowed internship scholarships. This would take a negligible amount of money from the endowment and award students who would otherwise receive nothing for their work. This would allow students equal access to the internships that so often translate into gainful employment.

But starting these initiatives will require a well-funded career services department. Cornell has a responsibility to see that its graduates have all the necessary tools to gain employment after they leave Ithaca; but, judging by the news that only half of the Class of 2009 found employment within six months of graduation, that responsibility is not currently being fulfilled.