Unpaid Versus Paid Internships: Group Membership Makes the Difference

Journal of College Student Development / August 2020

Non-traditional students

Given that paid internships often lead to higher paying positions postgraduation and that women continue to earn less than men for the same position despite their level of education, the authors were interested to understand whether women and other underserved groups were more or less likely to participate in paid or unpaid internships in college compared with their peers. Colleges and universities provide opportunities and partnerships for underserved student groups to begin their careers on equal footing; therefore, exploring student characteristics associated with participating in paid versus unpaid internships yields valuable information for career counseling and internship programs. There are important and differential outcomes associated with paid compared to unpaid internships; specifically, paid internships are likely to yield more positive short-term career success (e.g., starting salary, timing of job offer) compared to unpaid internships.

Research findings by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE; 2013) indicated a positive correlation between paid internships and job offers received before graduation, but unpaid internships were found to have little or no relationship with this measure of short-term success. Further research by NACE (2019) found that while there was not necessarily a significant influence on measures of long-term career success, paid interns are much more likely to have accepted a full-time offer in the shorter-term than are unpaid interns or those that have never interned, and students with paid internship experience received nearly 50 percent more job offers than those who had either unpaid or no internship experience.