UW–Madison’s Hora talks with Teen Vogue about unpaid internships — and why they are problematic

Teen Vogue utilized the expertise of UW–Madison’s Matthew Hora for a recent report on unpaid internships — and why it is problematic to ask college students to work for free.

Matthew Hora

Hora is an associate professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies, and in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies in the Division of Continuing Studies.

The report in the magazine, headlined “Unpaid Internships Are Still Common — Here’s What to Do When Asked to Work for Free,” explains that offering unpaid internships “impacts who can take which opportunities, and this often impacts who ends up in a given field.” Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers that is referenced in the report found that in 2020 and 2021, the majority of students who took part in internships were white and male.

Hora, who is also the co-director of  UW–Madison’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, tells Teen Vogue that most discussions about internships overlook three critical issues: First, he says, a good internship program is difficult to design and implement, and too little attention is paid to supervision, quality of tasks, and student development; second, there just aren’t enough good internship placements for students in the U.S.; and third, too many students can’t take an internship due to lack of time, money, connections, or knowledge, “so making them mandatory is not yet a fair or reasonable step to take,” he points out.

Hora adds that “asking — or making — college students of all ages to work for free is… simply unethical.”

While some unpaid internships include college credit, this isn’t equivalent to offering compensation, explains Hora. In fact, it can hit students with a “double whammy”: “They have to pay the college for tuition for that credit-bearing course, and then they have to work (and take time away from school, life, and paid work) to work for free,” he says.

Receiving adequate pay is also a matter of protection, notes the report, as unpaid interns are not covered by employee protections against exploitation, racial or disability discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Hora says that “the data on internship participation in the U.S., in general, and student experiences with internships is very poor.” He notes that surveys or studies about discrimination often undercount the phenomenon.

Check out the full report at teenvogue.com to learn more about this important issue.

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