The Magazine

What Price Interns?

Punching the tickets of the meritocracy.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
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Parents and students have become convinced that internships are a desirable and necessary career aspiration, and colleges have been happy to oblige. In this unthinking acquiescence, however, colleges have both ignored questions about what their academic credits actually represent and actively encouraged a system that directly contravenes the notions of meritocracy that they so vigorously trumpet. This builds to Perlin’s most trenchant critique of the internship culture: If career advantages accrue to those who can take internships, and if these internships often pay little or nothing, those who benefit will invariably be the affluent. Anecdotes aren’t really necessary to prove the point that most students simply cannot afford to work for little or nothing; internships, Perlin argues, provide “the already privileged with a significant head start.”

Of course, the affluent would enjoy an advantage in most employment scenarios; but universities exacerbate inequality when they encourage a credential that is inaccessible to many. It was not business lobbyists, Perlin points out, but “a group of thirteen university presidents who recently wrote to the Department of Labor, complaining that protecting interns might get in the way of their brisk trade in academic credit and cozy employer relationships.”

Anthony Paletta is a former senior editor at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University.