Government Can Make Internships More Accessible by Paying for Them

Rep. Susan Bonamici of Oregon has a great idea that will simultaneously help young people with limited means pay for college, get them job experience, and stimulate our stumbling economy. She proposes to have the federal government pay for tens of thousands of internships, making them available to low-income, Pell Grant-eligible students who could otherwise not afford to take them. Under Bonamici’s Opportunities for Success Act, H.R. 2659, the federal government would send funds to colleges and universities, which would use them to provide stipends equaling at least the minimum wage, but potentially more in situations where a student was not currently attending school (such as a summer internship) and would have to pay for food, lodging and transportation. The maximum grant would be $5,000.

The need for such a program is clear. Paid internships are increasingly important to the ability of college students to gain skills, make professional connections, and find jobs after graduation. As Rep. Bonamici says in the bill’s “Findings” section:

  • Many students struggle to make ends meet; 66 percent of young community college students dedicate more than 20 hours a week to an outside job, and the need of many students to maintain a part-time or full-time job reduces or eliminates the time available for an internship.
  • Internships often require significant time commitments or temporary relocation, which many students are unable to afford; these additional living expenses include housing, meals, and travel, and these costs make unpaid internships with employers like non-profit organizations and government even more inaccessible for those with low and middle incomes.

Unless we want to exclude students from low-income and middle-income families from important opportunities to participate in government, to make important connections, and to get their foot in the door for future paid employment opportunities, it is particularly important that we provide a means of supporting them financially while they work in government internships. This is not just a matter of economic justice but a way to ensure full democratic participation and to combat economic elitism.

For a typical 10-week summer internship in Washington, DC, working in a congressional office, the Opportunities for Success Act would pay each intern up to $5,000, depending on the costs incurred. For internships taken while the student is enrolled during the school year, the program would provide the higher of the state or federal minimum wage.

In 2010, two of EPI’s research assistants, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Kathryn Anne Edwards, published a similar proposal, a $500 million a year Student Opportunity Program, designed to level the playing field for low-income students who take internships in government. Like Rep. Bonamici, Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez recognized that many students are unable to take internships in federal government offices, from Congress to the White House, because they cannot afford to forego a paying job and cannot afford to pay the costs of transportation to Washington, DC, let alone the costs of meals and housing in the DC metro area. The $500 million initial funding level of their program would support about 80,000 internships a year.

Providing financing for internships is not just a way to make them available to less well-off students. It is also a way to make internships more valuable to any student who takes one. There is a world of difference in the employment outcomes between paid and unpaid and internships. According to two years of surveys of recent college graduates conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the college grads who had paid internships were far likelier to get a job offer and their salary offers were much higher than those received by grads who had unpaid internships. Only 37.8% of students who took unpaid internships at for-profit employers received job offers, while 61.5% who had paid internships got offers. In fact, students who took unpaid internships received lower average salary offers than students who never had an internship of any kind. By that measure, students who take unpaid internships seem to be damaging their employment prospects.

I salute Rep. Bonamici for addressing this problem and hope she finds a Senate co-sponsor so her proposal can get a hearing in Congress.