Must more students be paid for their work?

Executive Summary

Once the province of young doctors-in-training, the student internship has become an expected—if not required—part of a college education in nearly every discipline. About 60 percent of graduating seniors in 2014 had at least one internship, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. But a spate of high-profile lawsuits has alleged that unpaid internships are exploitive because they allow employers to violate minimum wage laws by assigning work to unpaid student help. These court cases, as well as renewed interest in an old legal test restricting the use of unpaid interns, have led a growing number of employers to end their programs and others to turn their internships into paying jobs. As the debate over internships intensifies, states are increasingly passing legislation giving interns the same legal protections as permanent employees in an effort to protect them from workplace harassment and discrimination.

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Berger, Lauren, “All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Résumé, Making Connections and Gaining Job Experience,” Ten Speed Press, 2012. The founder of, a job site that matches businesses with interns, offers strategies for choosing and landing internships and reviews U.S. Department of Labor regulations for unpaid internships.

Perlin, Ross, “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,” Verso, 2011. A writer, linguist and former intern specializing in labor-related topics posits that most internships are exploitative and illegal.


Bacon, Natalie, “Unpaid Internships: The History, Policy and Future Implications of ‘Fact Sheet #71,’” Ohio State Entrepreneurial Law Journal, 2011, Student at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law reviews the U.S. Department of Labor's six-factor test for determining whether an intern must be paid, and recommends revisions to the law.

Bird, Bernice, “Preventing Employer Misclassification of Student Interns and Trainees,” Cornell HR Review, Feb. 18, 2012, A law review editor at the Barry University School of Law examines the confusion over the laws and court rulings dictating the employment status of student interns, with explanations of each.

Curiale, Jessica, “America's New Glass Ceiling: Unpaid Internships, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Urgent Need for Change,” Hastings Law Journal, University of California, Hastings, 2010; available at SSRN, Law student at the University of California's Hastings School of Law criticizes unpaid internships as discriminatory and recommends public policy changes.

Greenhouse, Steven, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” The New York Times, April 2, 2010, Labor reporter takes a critical look at the common, yet illegal, business practice of “employing” student interns without paying them.

Hickman, Blair, et al., “Internships,” ProPublica, 2013–14, A 39-article series by a team from investigative journalism organization ProPublica probes unpaid internships, with a focus on student experiences, university practices, law and the intern economy.

Reports and Studies

“Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, 2010, The U.S. government's official document outlines the Labor Department's six-factor test for determining whether an intern must be paid the minimum wage under federal law.

Edwards, Kathryn Anne, and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, “Not-So-Equal Protection—Reforming the Regulation of Student Internships,” Economic Policy Institute, 2010, Researchers at progressive Washington think tank propose reforms to the federal law governing the pay of interns; their paper was published shortly before the U.S. Department of Labor issued Fact Sheet #71, based on what was then a 63-year-old law.

Gardner, Phil, “The Debate Over Unpaid College Internships,” Intern Bridge, 2010, Internship recruiting firm's survey-based report discusses differences among students who have paid and unpaid internships, in terms of income levels, gender and institution; Gardner, the director of Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, was the lead research adviser.

Shindell, Robert, “The Business Case for Paying Interns,” Intern Bridge, 2012, CEO of college recruiting, consulting and research firm makes the business case for paying interns more than minimum wage.

Walker, Robert Bruce, “Business internships and their relationship with retention, academic performance, and degree completion,” Iowa State University, 2011, Iowa State University doctoral student concludes that business students who participate in internships are more likely to graduate and to earn higher grades than their peers who do not have internships.

The Next Step

Career Development

Fabris, Casey, “College Students Think They're Ready for the Work Force. Employers Aren't So Sure,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 2015, Employers consistently give students and interns lower marks for their real-world knowledge and critical thinking skills than they give themselves, according to a survey of executives and college students by Hart Research Associates.

Gellman, Lindsay, and Shayndi Raice, “Banks Reassess Internship Programs, Relax Rules for Junior Employees,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 11, 2014, Large investment banks such as Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs are reforming their internship and seasonal analyst programs by improving work-life balance and replacing menial tasks with more significant jobs.

Kaur, Harmeet, “Study: Less than half of grads receive formal job training at new gigs,” USA Today, June 18, 2014, The lack of formal job training forces many recent grads to rely on skills learned during internships, according to an annual survey by technology consulting firm Accenture.


Burns, Judith, “Unpaid internships ‘favour the rich,’” BBC News, Nov. 11, 2014, Unpaid interns must pay an average of 926 pounds per month in living expenses, or about $1,377, to work at an unpaid internship in London, according to a U.K.-based educational charity and think tank.

O'Connor, Sarah, and Elizabeth Rigby, “Employers warn against curbs on unpaid interns,” Financial Times (U.K.), Dec. 15, 2014, The United Kingdom's largest business lobbying group said proposed government measures to limit unpaid internships would reduce opportunities for students, but other groups argue that poorer candidates cannot work for free.

Schonfeld, Zach, “In Another Blow to Free Labor, Columbia University Halts Academic Credit for Internship,” Newsweek, Feb. 28, 2014, The dean of Columbia University in New York City hopes the university's recent decision to stop offering credit for unpaid internships will pressure companies to pay student interns.


Nicks, Denver, “Condé Nast Interns Settle for $5.85M,” Time, Nov. 14, 2014, A federal District Court judge approved a $5.85 million settlement between magazine publisher Condé Nast and more than 7,000 former interns who reportedly received less than $1 per hour while working.

Raab, Lauren, “‘Late Show With David Letterman’ ex-intern drops class-action lawsuit,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 10, 2014, A former full-time, unpaid intern for CBS' “Late Show With David Letterman” dropped a class-action lawsuit against Letterman's production company two days after filing the suit.

Zara, Christopher, “‘Saturday Night Live’ Intern Lawsuit: NBCUniversal Will Pay Massive $6.4M In Settlement, Or About $505 For Each Intern,” International Business Times, Oct. 24, 2014, NBCUniversal agreed to pay $6.4 million to thousands of former unpaid interns who performed the same tasks as full-time paid employees, or about $505 per intern.


Bilton, Nick, “Some Tech Interns Make More Than U.S. Workers,” Bits, The New York Times, March 1, 2014, San Francisco Bay Area-based technology and social media companies pay their interns monthly wages ranging from $6,200 to $7,015, according to a report by online job marketplace Glassdoor.

Elmer, Vickie, “Some companies would rather get rid of interns than pay them,” Quartz, May 7, 2014, Increased litigation over wages between employers and former unpaid interns seeking back compensation may have led companies to hire fewer summer interns in 2014, according to a researcher from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Zillman, Claire, “Fox: Interns who benefit from internship don't deserve pay,” Fortune, July 16, 2014, Fox Entertainment Group argued in an ongoing lawsuit with former unpaid interns that companies should be able to determine wages based on whether the intern or the employer benefits more from the arrangement.


Cooperative Education and Internship Association
P.O. Box 42506, Cincinnati, Ohio 45242
Trade association for students, employers and educators involved in the administration of cooperative education and internship programs.

Economic Policy Institute
1333 H St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005-4707
Think tank that advocates for low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.

Intern Bridge
11113 Persimmon Gap Drive, Austin, TX 78717
Research and consulting firm that publishes reports, puts on workshops and helps employers structure internship programs.

Intern Queen Inc.
Information source and job listing site for internships.

National Association of Colleges and Employers
62 Highland Ave., Bethlehem, PA 18017
Trade association for college career services professionals and business recruiting professionals involved in placing college interns and hiring college graduates.

Outten & Golden
3 Park Ave., 29th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Law firm specializing in workplace issues; represents plaintiffs in several class-action suits brought by unpaid interns against their employers.

Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor
Frances Perkins Building, 200 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20210
U.S. government agency that enforces the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping and child labor requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

DOI: 10.1177/2374556815584321