The price is right: how much will your summer internship cost?

Many college students learn quickly that the pressure to build experience through internships is high, but the distinction between an internship and a job may not be immediately apparent.

An internship is a temporary, usually seasonal position which an employer may or may not choose to extend to regular employment at a later point.

Woman stands thoughfully in front of blackboard with a thougth bubble of dollar signs.Internships are intended to have a unique emphasis on training. Unlike most other work, internships may be unpaid, and unpaid  interns may not have the same workplace protections that those classified as permanent employees have. Depending on the area of work, internship experience may be either required or strongly encouraged before entering a career in the field in which you’re interested.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor cracked down on companies exploiting unpaid student labor, asserting that student interns should earn academic credit if they are not benefiting financially. It’s also illegal for an unpaid intern to be tasked with projects that give “immediate advantage” to the business, academic credit or not.

However, compliance with this policy has had some unanticipated negative effects on low-income students. Some businesses now require that interns receive academic credit as a condition of their employment. Since academic credits are paid for by students, usually through tuition, this policy means that interns have to pay for what Kevin Carey ironically terms “the privilege of working” in a New York Times Viewpoint article.

During the summer this becomes especially difficult for low-income students. Since students don’t generally pay tuition in the summer, there is no financial aid to cover summer internship credit costs. This can entail a difficult struggle for students with minimal or non-existent support networks who must cover the costs of academic credit and living costs through an unpaid internship. In spite of these barriers, students continue to strive to obtain experiences that will strengthen their skill-sets and resumes.

If you’re interested in applying for a summer internship, here are some things you should consider:

1. Does your school offer academic credit for summer internships?

Do a quick search of your school’s website or call an on-campus office to determine whether or not your school offers academic credit for summer internships. Most schools do, although liberal arts colleges are less likely to do so in the interest of discouraging skills-based and vocational training as a substitute for a broader liberal arts education. Some schools offer limited credit, equivalent to a physical education class—or they only award “registration credits,” which do not count toward graduation. A growing policy at institutions of higher education is to acknowledge internships with transcript notations instead of academic credit.

2. What specific registration requirements does your school have for summer internships?

If you plan on registering your internship for credit, your school may have additional requirements, usually including an essay summarizing what you have gained from the program. Other supplements may include a learning contract, assigned site and academic supervisors, and student and site evaluations. If you do not seek credit for your internship, there is often little to no school involvement in your internship program.

3. How much will your internship cost?

Businesses advertising internship positions—especially unpaid positions—are increasingly requiring students to register their program for academic credit. The average credit costs about $1,000, but sometimes in-state students will receive a subsidized price of more or less than $350 per credit. Don’t forget to account for the cost of housing, food, and transportation if the internship requires you to relocate from home.

4. How will you pay for your summer internship?

In response to the trend in credit-mandatory internships, many colleges and universities are starting to develop private grants, particularly for international students and students who are economically disadvantaged. These grants tend to only fund a fraction of the credits which are associated with a typical academic class. For many colleges where the average class is worth four credits, a summer internship can only be funded up to one or two credits.

Check your campus’ internship funding resources when planning for the summer. While external grants for summer internships are currently an underdeveloped area of funding, new sources are emerging at an increasing rate. If your campus doesn’t provide opportunities for summer internship financing, it may be helpful to do a thorough Google search. One resource to check out is Summer Funding Resources for Work in Any Geographic Location.

5. How will your internship experience influence your future career?

There is some debate on the power of internships to make or break future career opportunities. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted a recent survey that demonstrated that 63 percent of students who’d had a paid internship were able to find employment after college, while students who participated in unpaid internships were almost half as likely to find employment post-graduation—only 2 percent more likely than someone who had no internship experience at all. The same trend was visible when comparing post-graduation salaries—those who completed unpaid internships earned close to the same amount of money each year compared to their peers who had never interned, while those with paid internships reaped the benefits of their work. It may pay off in the short-term—and in the long run—to hold out for an internship with monetary compensation.


Haleigh Duncan is a more-than-happy intern for CareerOneStop, and a member of the Macalester College class of 2016. She is currently pursuing degrees in English and Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. She has faith in transferable skills.

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