Brown University announced last month that starting this summer, its administration will provide select students with funding to complete one internship or research experience during their undergraduate career. By 2018, Brown plans to expand the program to all students receiving need-based aid. At a time when employers strongly emphasize summer work experience, we commend Brown’s ambitious but worthwhile attempts to alleviate the financial pressures that prevent many students from accepting unpaid internships. While we laud Cornell’s current efforts — including academic programs and scholarships — we believe that the University could expand its existing programs and create other opportunities to make unpaid internships more accessible to students who qualify for financial aid.
While contending with a lack of compensation, unpaid interns must nonetheless bear the full costs of housing, travel and other living expenses for the summer. For many students who receive need-based aid, this is simply unfeasible. In an Oct. 23 editorial, we condemned unpaid internships, which put lower-income students at a distinct disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers. While we maintain that interns should receive fair payment for their work, unpaid internships are still a reality in today’s job market. Until compliance with the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act becomes the norm, the burden must fall on Cornell to fight for equal opportunities for all students. In addition to the benefit conferred upon students, the University stands to gain from ensuring its graduates will be competitive in the job market.
At Cornell, certain scholarship programs offered by the University provide stipends for students who undertake internships in certain fields. For example, the Chaim and Ida Miller Award has, in the past, helped students in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations pay for certain expenses that would have “otherwise been prohibitive” to taking an unpaid internship. Additionally, the Harrop and Ruth Freeman Fellowship is available to students studying peace and conflict studies who pursue unpaid internships. For many of these programs, however, demonstrated financial need is not a requirement for eligibility — and it should be. While there are other programs that will relieve some students of the Summer Expected Savings requirement associated with their financial aid packages, availability for these tuition breaks is described as “limited” and “first-come, first-serve.” We believe that these programs are effective for those who can access them, but we urge the University to follow Brown’s lead and work toward expanding this support to more of the student body.
We recognize that Cornell’s funding is not unlimited, and that there are, at any given time, a number of services worthy of receiving additional University resources. We would not recommend that the University finance summer work experiences by drawing funding away from traditional academic financial aid. But given the growing importance of internships as a key component of the undergraduate experience, Cornell should target its fundraising efforts at creating and supporting programs that can help make these opportunities accessible to all students.