OPINION: USC must expand funding for unpaid internships

As with most summers, many USC students have moved to big cities around the world to get a taste of the post-college work life through internships. At their best, these experiences can shape and inform career paths. Unpaid internships, however, hinder students’ career prospects, often forcing students who are unable to afford housing, travel and other costs  to forgo work opportunities important for success in their careers. 

Though USC has several summer funding scholarships for unpaid internships, the University must continue to expand access to these resources and assist low-income students.

Even if a student does manage to receive one of these scholarships, most only offer between $1,500 and $2,000, which is definitely not enough to even cover housing over the summer. L.A. apartment rates exceed $1,000 per month, by conservative estimates, and housing in cities like San Francisco and New York cost even more. Most internships run for 10 or more weeks, so a $2,000 stipend wouldn’t even cover rent alone. 

Internships often require students to work just as much as entry-level employees, yet $2,000 spread over ten forty-hour work weeks equates to an hourly help of $5.

Factor in costs incurred for food and transportation and pursuing an unpaid internship becomes next to impossible for some students. 

This creates a notable divide between students who can and cannot afford to live on their own and fund the first few steps of their careers. Students from wealthy families don’t have to worry about the cost of their internship because their families can support them financially. Low-income students don’t have the same privilege. Internships don’t come with the same financial aid available during the school year, forcing them to skip these opportunities to instead work at a job that pays the bills. Furthermore, unpaid internships tend to discourage students who hope to work in public service-oriented sectors. Most nonprofits and government offices only offer unpaid internships, making it difficult for students who want to pursue politics and advocacy in their careers. 

Even outside of the public service sector, The Washington Post reports that 43% of internships are unpaid in the for-profit realm. 

In an ambitious academic and professional environment like USC, securing an internship, paid or unpaid, feels especially necessary. Professors and professional schools turn to practical experience as instructional guidance. Meanwhile, the length of a student’s resume becomes a measuring stick to compare their progress against their peers, inextricably linking internship experience to self-worth.

USC, to its credit, appears to have more robust options for funding undergraduate internships than its peer institutions, offering funding through diverse channels across campus for students from many backgrounds, such as the First-Generation Scholarship and the USC Gateway Scholarship Program. However, increasing the size and accessibility of these funds must become a priority. 

Current industry culture promotes unpaid internships as normal or even beneficial to students, and USC has a responsibility to even the playing field for their students as securing and completing internships becomes just as important as college education itself.