Unpaid internships are unethical, immoral, classist, and students should not be forced or even encouraged to participate in them.
The premise of an internship is to gain experience, make connections in the industry you hope to work in, and get the opportunity to work in multiple places before deciding where you want to ultimately work post grad. As an idea, that is great. Allowing students the opportunity to try out the field they are going into, while still having the comfort and stability of college to fall back onto, is something that should be encouraged. In practice, though, internships are not that. As an intern, it is rare that you get to do the work that you would be doing as a paid staff member, which immediately diminishes the value of them. Interns are most frequently given the work that nobody else wants to do, or that has fallen through the cracks because every paid staff member is busy doing other tasks. While it is important to understand that your first job out of college won’t be glamorous, and you won’t be doing the most important work of your career, an internship should reflect that. There is no reason to have interns potting plants in the office, or spending their days doing random, meaningless tasks around the office.
There is a whole other, and far worse problem with unpaid internships, how classist they are. Going to college is expensive, between classes themselves, textbooks, room and board, it is a lot to handle. In order to survive, most students have to have a job of some sort. When students are required to have a job to survive, take an adequate number of credits to graduate on time, and complete internships to gain experience, it is too much. Those who can afford to not work while in school are the people who can do unpaid internships. Students who do not have to work while in school are automatically at an advantage, as they can worry about classes, extracurriculars, etc., while others have to worry about how they’ll afford basic necessities. These are the students who are most likely to complete unpaid internships, as they have the means to work without getting paid. Unpaid internships are not the fault of these students, nor should they stop completing them, but universities need to have this tough discussion, and have to stop putting other students at such a massive disadvantage over others. There is also the element of doing unpaid internships for credit, which is something that a lot of educational institutions require as part of a degree. By requiring students to complete an internship, a college is requiring them to either not work for an entire semester, which could be severely detrimental to them, or do an unpaid internship on top of their part-time job and classes, which is even more detrimental. The college is also asking the student to pay the fee to get credits, which typically requires at least some academic work, and do the job that they are hired to do. Not only is the student being asked to work for free, they are also being forced to pay their college for letting them work somewhere for free.
The system that allows college students to complete unpaid internships has failed. There is no logical reason for allowing young people to have a job and not get paid for the job. Every college student deserves the ability to complete an internship, simply to give them insight into what career path they want to take. Not every college student can afford to complete an unpaid internship, though, and even for the students that can afford it, it is not right.