Claire Li/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A student works near the windows of Mann Library's second floor as summer break is rapidly approaching.

April 28, 2022

Exploitation or Experience: Students Discuss Internship Pay Debate

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As summer approaches, many Cornelians are locking in their summer jobs and internships. For some students, however, a big factor is whether an internship is a paid position. 

Unpaid internships are a controversial topic, viewed as both a way to gain valuable work experience and a way for companies to exploit young workers who are eager to get started in their field. 

Despite their controversy, unpaid internships are fully legal. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires courts to use the “primary beneficiary test,” which measures if an intern is considered an employee based on who is the primary beneficiary of the job. If the employee is the primary beneficiary, meaning that the company itself doesn’t receive as much value as the worker does, then pay is not required. 

For some students like Faith Johnson ’23, unpaid internships are not as valuable as a paid position. 

“I have had both paid and unpaid internships in the past,” Johnson said. “I can confidently say that when the internship is unpaid, I am much less engaged and sometimes tend to enjoy it less. It really makes you question what you’re working for.” 

Similar to Johnson, Reed Milnor ’24 prefers paid positions. 

“Whether [an internship] is paid or not definitely affects my decision [to take the position]. The quality of the internship or potential impact on my career would have to be very significant for me to consider pursuing it without pay,” Milnor said. 

In the United States, it’s estimated that about 300,000 college students intern each year, and about 40 percent of those positions are unpaid. Paid internships are about 52 percent more likely to result in a full-time job offer than unpaid internships. 

Jacob Wynkoop ’23 explains how he would take an unpaid position if it put him in a better position when he graduated. 

“Last summer I ended up doing research because I thought that the opportunity to conduct field research at Cornell was more valuable to my education than the paid internship opportunity I had,” Wynkoop said. “This summer, on the other hand, I did look specifically for internships that were paid because of personal financial incentives.”

Like Wynkoop, Xavier Martinez ’23 bases his decision on his financial situation and whether the internship could provide him with valuable experience for post-graduation. 

“Of course, I would prefer to be paid, but I am very fortunate that my family has kept the financial training wheels on my sister and I which would allow me to take an unpaid internship,” Martinez said. “If my schedule permitted it, I might even consider getting another job to supplement an unpaid position to gain some sort of income.”

An alternative some employers take regarding interns is providing students with a stipend to compensate for transportation or college credits. 

Sammy Phelps ’23 said the expenses of college life require her to search for internships either with a salary or a stipend for costs of living. 

“Unless it’s exactly what I’m looking for, the only way I’d accept an unpaid internship is if I received a stipend from the company or a scholarship from Cornell,” Phelps said. “College life is expensive, and a position being unpaid definitely affects whether I accept the job or not.”