The unpaid — or barely paid — internship remains instrumental in accelerating the career trajectories of a lot of U.S. college students, especially for careers in government, journalism and law. In a piece for the New York Times, Darren Walker writes, “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” I think this gets at the root of our problem: There are thousands of talented students who can’t compete on the same level as their peers for purely financial reasons.

Sure, there have been attempts to remedy this — using social media to shame companies into paying their interns, grants from well-funded universities, programs that mitigate impossible costs — but many times, these endeavors only paint a sense of fairness over a system that remains thoroughly unfair. This is reinforced by guilty, empathetic op-eds in campus newspapers — I won’t link anyone, in particular, to be polite — that stress how much it hurts for advantaged students to enjoy their internships knowing that the pool of competitors has been reduced by financial factors.

It’s not enough just to feel bad, as anyone who’s been involved with minority group activism likely knows; people with structural power need to use their positions to level the field behind them. A pre-law student expressing his or her regret about the typical road to a law career will soon enough be a lawyer, and — given the University of Michigan’s placement rates — maybe even one with extraordinary resources. Will this undergraduate’s guilt translate into postgraduate action?

The goal isn’t, of course, to tear down current advantages so that everyone faces the same difficult route forward; it’s to correct former inequalities such that talent as a factor increases as much as possible. I don’t want to condemn people for taking fair opportunities that are distributed unfairly, but I do want to make sure that we don’t reinforce the status quo because it’s easier to resolve one’s guilt than to resolve the problem.

There are certain careers worked unequally by various groups in American society. The factors that cause these variations are complex. The proportion of women in finance, for example, probably isn’t because of disparate household resources, but likely economic accessibility to the career path.

It’s (apparently) easy enough to find talent that can afford to advertise itself and has the resources for an unpaid internship in an expensive city or enough money for a summer spent on volunteer work instead of wage labor. What this means, though, is that we effectively limit access to certain career ladders, so to speak, by a child’s or young adult’s access to financial resources.

Our goal in minimizing this effect should be increasing competition, regardless of someone’s financial ability. When we define elite industries, it should be by the rigor of competition required to obtain those positions and the talent required to keep them, not the social and economic class of a typical worker.

Maybe some hesitancy around this comes from our complicated relationship with the concept of “deserving.” What comes with this, though, should be a recognition that all students deserve an otherwise provided opportunity to compete on the same level. If the end result of this is that some candidates — who would have previously gotten through on structural advantages — are eliminated from contention for prestigious jobs, so be it.

The impressive fact about U-M graduates is that many will rise to positions of financial, legal, journalistic and political power. If you’re among them, remember to pay your interns, when you have them. Consider housing costs when you recruit students who are compensated with only with the prestige of your organization. Remind yourself how important luck is in everyone’s success, and of the breaks that you’ve personally received. Remember how much you empathized, when you actually get the chance to turn your emotion into action.

Hank Minor can be reached at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *