Along with living off ramen noodles and furnishing a dorm with milk crates, getting an internship is one of the most quintessential parts of any college student’s life.

It makes sense—the prospect of getting a real job after college is daunting, to say the least. And when you have a ton of student debt looming and no certainty of a paycheck to attack it with, an internship offers a glimmer of hope: It’s an opportunity to get your foot in the door, meet the right people, and maybe, just maybe, secure that dream job.

The glimmer is tantalizing. From 2013 to 2017, sixty percent of every graduating class has participated in an internship or cooperative education program, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shared in a 2017 report. In data they collected from late 2016 to early 2017, over three quarters of all internship offers were accepted.

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“Virtually all co-op positions are paid,” according to the executive summary of the study, but the same can’t be said for internships, which are significantly more common. While NACE’s “2017 Internship & Co-Op Report” indicates that interns are becoming more likely to get paid for work, 43.3 percent of interns are still unpaid.

In the past several years, companies like NBC Universal, Fox Searchlight, Marc Jacobs, Vice, and more have been taken to court by their former interns because their tough gigs were unpaid.

If you’re a poor college student who’s only ever worked at Chipotle, the idea of even being allowed in a corporate office of your future field can sound appealing—especially if that office belongs to some of the biggest names in the industry. But with many companies managing to pay their interns, it becomes hard to understand why others can’t do the same.

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Both the prevalence of unpaid internships and the legal drama that follows them begs we ask the question: Is sacrificing salary ever justifiable?

Internships Defined

No matter how amazing your barista skills are, no one’s going to let you man the espresso machine in the breakroom for three months—even if they’re not paying you. Why? Because making lattes doesn’t fulfill the basic purpose of an internship.

“Internships are typically one-time work or service experiences related to the student’s major or career goal,” according to NACE’s 2017 report on internships and co-ops. “The internship plan generally involves students working in professional settings under the supervision and monitoring of practicing professionals.”

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Ideally, a company will help their interns receive the training, experience, and support that will help them with their future career in that industry. Oh, and about that glimmer of hope—in the 2017 internships and co-ops report, NACE found that 51.3 percent of interns became full-time employees of their companies.

A day in the life of an intern can vary from company to company. Some companies provide their interns with a combination of tasks and projects to complete. Other companies’ internships might look a lot more like a regular, full-time job—some without pay, of course, and that’s where lawsuits start coming in.

The Problem With Not Paying

If you ask the 51.3 percent of interns from NACE’s report who landed a full time gig, they might say internships are the golden ticket to your dream job. But as recent lawsuits have shown, they can also be exploitative.

Architects don’t give away their blueprints.

In 2015, Viacom television networks agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement with their former unpaid interns. The next year, Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group settled out of court with dozens of their former unpaid interns. Come 2017, the Olsen twins settled with not one, not two, but 185 disgruntled interns, one of whom claimed to work 50 hours a week without compensation.

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Eric Glatt, who, along with fellow intern Eric Footman, lead the charge against 21st Century Fox units (Moral Courage TV via The Frame)

Many of these interns alleged that their duties went beyond the definitions of an unpaid internship. For some cases, this looked to be in reference to one of the Department of Labor’s requirements for unpaid internships, which at the time stipulated: “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

In January 2018, the United States Department of Labor updated their stance, providing a seven-point test for courts to evaluate the legality of unpaid internships. Courts will now evaluate “[the] extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.”

Some believe the new guidelines will make it easier for companies to hire unpaid interns. “Unlike the previous standard,” wrote Bloomberg’s Rebecca Greenfield, “an unpaid internship doesn’t necessarily have to meet any prescribed threshold related to those seven factors. Each internship program will be justified on its own merits, a more forgiving benchmark for employers.”

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While the DOL test states that internships are conducted “without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship,” the prospect of being offered a job is exactly what incentivizes many interns to work full-time hours with no pay. When you believe you’re making a short-term sacrifice for a larger payoff, it’s a lot easier to ignore the reality of not being able to pay your bills for months on end.

Erik Bullen, CEO of marketing company MageMail, says offering a salary with internships has positive results right from the application stage.

“We need to adhere to labor laws for internships in certain countries,” says Bullen. “However, regardless of the regulations, we would still offer paid internships for a few reasons. First, it attracts a higher quality set of talent. We’re in a competitive market and compete with other firms for interns who also offer paid internships.”

He also points out that rather than “perform clichéd grunt work,” MageMail interns contribute to the bigger picture via strategic projects, allowing them to “influence the direction of the company.” The difference? They’re paid for their hard work.

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“… we treat interns just as we do employees,” he says. “They are part of the team, and their work is important for the company and valued, so it should be fairly compensated. … by placing value on their work, we create stronger engagement on both sides. We need to ensure that we get value from interns’ contributions, and they in turn are more invested in the job.”

There’s a running joke about working for free, or “on spec,” that comes from an all-too-common situation between business owners and prospective clients. This is especially true for freelancers in creative fields, like graphic design or copywriting. The Zulu Alpha Kilo video below illustrates it nicely:

In a way, unpaid internships set the precedent for this same expectation, normalizing the idea that people should offer their services in exchange for exposure or experience.

“Architects don’t give away their blueprints,” the video description reads. “Diners don’t fork out free meals. Personal Trainers don’t sign over their intellectual property on spec.” Why should interns be any different?

Does experience ever pay?

To really assess the value of experience gained during an internship, paid or not, we need to look at what the “pay off” actually entails.

We think of our internships as entry-level positions, rather than internships…

It’s not unusual for companies to hire multiple interns at the same time, and not all of those interns—if any—will be offered a position. So if you’re only completing an internship in order to secure a full-time job with the company, you’ve got about a 50/50 shot, remember.

As for outside the company, 60 percent of employers say they are “much more likely” to hire a student with internship/apprenticeship experience, according to research by Hart Research Associates. Nearly all of them say they’re more likely.

Internships can offer benefits besides employability, too, such as new skills, networking, and a reference for your resumé. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to commit to working without pay—come real job time, “unpaid internship participation was negatively correlated to student salary and employment outcomes,” according to a 2016 NACE-funded study, which was conducted by Andrew Crain.

Moritz Hintze is the CEO & co-founder of bookitgreen, a booking platform that connects travelers with sustainable holiday accommodations around the globe. His company does pay their interns, which he says is a matter of ethics.

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Hintze (via St. Petersburg University)

“It is ethically reprehensible, not to mention in some countries illegal, to exploit highly-qualified interns for free labor,” he says, “There’s a culture amongst young people today of feeling like you have to do an internship in order to succeed in your career. Paying our interns, besides being the right thing to do ethically, gives them the stability to fully focus their energy on learning and growing within the company. Many of our interns have gone on to be full-time employees of bookitgreen after their internship term, which allows us to build strong relationships over time.”

“We think of our internships as entry-level positions, rather than internships,” he says, “and the fact that these are paid positions contributes to this attitude…. Providing paid internships is one way that we’re cultivating a positive, open culture of commitment and motivation in the workplace.”

Twice Unpaid

I, the writer of this piece, have had two unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships—or working for free in general—are certainly expected in specific industries. For example, there’s an expectation in video game journalism that newbie writers “pay their dues” with at least a year of volunteer writing for a website—I plugged countless hours into this. The idea of the due-paying period is that you’ll not only improve your writing through practice, but learn about the editorial process through an editor and make contacts in the industry.

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I also completed a part-time unpaid internship for a not-for-profit company, who rarely pay their interns. It involved working on large projects under close supervision, as well as being given autonomy on daily tasks. I wasn’t surprised when I wasn’t offered a job at the end, as I knew from day one that the company wasn’t financially able to take on anyone new.

Were these experiences worth it? If I’m being honest, writing for free wasn’t. In fact, I believe I would have been better off maintaining my own blog and attending industry events to network and make contacts.

My internship with the charity organization was by far the most invaluable. I only ever committed one‚ sometimes two days a week to that internship; the same amount of time I previously set aside in my week for community work or volunteering. Meanwhile, I received some invaluable experience and training from a fantastic supervisor, all while getting to help a charity whose vision I really believed in. It was a win-win situation.

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I didn’t get paid, but I never struggled to make ends meet. Why? Because it was a part-time position. I was able to hold down another part-time job to make sure I didn’t starve.

Exploitation or opportunity?

It’s clear that internships, in general, make you more employable: Ninety four percent of employers said they were more likely to hire a student with internship/apprenticeship experience, according to research by Hart Research Associates. Sixty percent of them said they were “much more likely.”

But there’s no black-and-white answer on how useful unpaid internships are, mainly because of how much each internship can vary. Students must evaluate, then, whether an unpaid internship represents opportunity or exploitation.

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To get it out of the way—here’s the money you’d be missing: According to NACE’s 2017 data, paid interns received an average hourly rate of $18.06—a bit better than the $0.00 the other 43.3 percent of interns made.

But as for the experience you’ll ideally gain: “Unpaid internships represent more experimental, academic activities that offer early opportunities for immersion and socialization in a chosen field,” reads the Crain study. (Paid internships, meanwhile, were shown to have a greater influence on professional skill development.)

Further, “Unpaid internships were correlated to positive outcomes in the areas of confirming or rejecting career interests, setting and attaining career goals, quality of supervision, and networking,” with the last two categories scoring higher than paid internships.

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But people need to pay their bills; people need to maintain their sanity.

Evaluate your schedule—if your hours are completely filled up by an internship that can’t even guarantee you a position at the end of it, then you might want to reconsider how valuable that experience will turn out to be. Is it really fair for a company to expect you to work full time for free? How much is the experience and reference truly worth it to you?

Not every unpaid internship is an unethical ruse disguised as a volunteer opportunity, but it definitely pays to think twice about where you commit your time.

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