Summer Internships and the Price of Privilege

7 years ago

When Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest,” I am pretty sure he didn’t mean forking over thousands of dollars so your kid could participate in a fancy (unpaid) internship. But that is exactly what parents of privilege are doing this summer.

“What?” you ask. “Parents are paying to have their children work at a company?” Oh, yes they are and it’s not just because the Great Recession continues unabated.

As most of us are aware, college and high school students often participate in stints of unpaid work traditionally called internships. These short-term jobs are intended to give the student insight into a chosen career. They are modeled after the antiquated “apprenticeship” concept and can be pivotal learning experiences. The investment in knowledge has always been an investment by the company or organization into the future generation because let’s face it, you don’t get a lot of meaningful work from someone who is unskilled and only available for two months.

Now, parents are the ones making the investment and the price is high: $5,000, $6,000, even as much as $9,000. Here is a small sampling of what some of high school students are doing this summer:

  • Attending Summer Discovery Internship where they gain college credit for working at an internship in a field that interests them. It only costs mom and dad $5,000 (or more)
  • Doing community service in Costa Rica with the National Geographic Society (again for a mere $5,000 -- seems like that is the price to entry for these "meaningful experiences).
  • Working in India with Raliegh International on sustainability issues -- at least they don't ask you to pay, they encourage you to "fundraise" for your adventure.

The question to ask is why are parents willing to pay for these “meaningful experiences” rather than have their children closer to home, doing an internship nearby, or something more mundane like life-guarding or simply getting bored?

When I reached out to a few of the parents whose children are participating in programs such as the ones above, they expounded on the benefits of cross-cultural access and the opportunity to have their children challenged in new and unconventional ways. One parent did say she’d be thrilled if her son could find a summer job, but there aren’t any and she is probably right. According to a report released by job services firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, hiring of 16-19 year olds was down 17% in 2010 and was expected to be down again this year. Eventually, however, the parents I spoke to admitted they thought these meaningful experiences would “look good on the college application.”

And there it is. Those who can are creating the perfect college resume for their privileged children. Let me be clear, in the vast majority of cases, these are not spoiled children indulged by superficial parents. (Yes, sure, some of them are: a recent article on the cover of the New York Times observed that the Haves are sending their kids to summer camp (that’s nothing new) in their private jets (really?!).)

Rather, these are parents who are caught in the race to get Janey and Johnny into the best college possible. They are responding to the advice of college counselors like Kristin Thomas, who offers summer activity advice for college-bound students on the blog, The Succulent Wife. Of one exclusive (and expensive) opportunity she writes, “Of course travel can also be a beneficial use of summer time. National Geographic has great programs for either fieldwork or expeditions trips. How impressive would this be to put that on a resume!”

We, the parents of college-bound students, are bombarded with how-to advice on getting into Harvard, Stanford and the like. Programs such as paid internships are classic examples of the “keeping up with the Joneses” on the race to nowhere. The thinking goes, “If I don’t send Janey to (fill in the blank with meaningful experience X), she won’t get into the college of her choice because her competition, let’s call him Johnny, will and he’ll have something that sets him apart.”

One parent I spoke to argued these meaningful experiences were educational. That is true; they are. The children are learning important skills, but they are doing so in a highly constructed manner. I worry in our rush to ensure that Janey and Johnny have experiences that will set them apart, we parents are keeping our children from learning the essential skills of autonomy and initiative, skills learned by finding their own summer job or internship. The media is rife with articles about our over-coddled children who are emotionally handicapped and incapable of navigating college. If we rescue our kids by offering them “meaningful experiences,” what does that teach them? The price of privilege may be the unintended message of “we don’t trust you to do this on your own.”

Additionally, the cloistered air in which Janey is having her experience means she is not necessarily interacting with children of different socio-economic backgrounds. Sure the other students at her specialized internship program may come from different ethnic backgrounds, but they are all still rich; they have to be in order to afford the luxury of going to said programs.

As we all know, the divisions between the classes is getting wider by the day. Cross-cultural experiences are critical, but so is the chance to meet kids who can’t afford the elite private schools and exotic summer travel adventures. Working at the local ice cream parlor or at a fast food restaurant will bring you into contact with people from all walks of life, albeit different ones than those who live in India.

Lifeguard on Duty with WhistleBetween meaningful experiences and materialistic conveniences, I wonder what is lost. I was raised in a relatively privileged household (I went to private high school and my parents paid for my college expenses -- that meant I came into adulthood well-educated and debt-free, a gift for which I am deeply grateful) and yet, I still had four of the five traditional summer jobs: I was a babysitter, a camp counselor, a waitress, and I worked in retail. (I missed the chance to be a lifeguard -- oh well).

Each of these jobs included long, boring days with little reward and each of them spurred me to work hard in school so I would never have to be a camp counselor or waitress or sales assistant ever again (I liked babysitting enough to become a mother -- eventually). The money I earned took me on a trip across Europe when I was a sophomore in college. Sure, my parents could have paid my way, but I didn’t want them to -- it was my trip and therefore, I felt I should pay for it.

Now that I am a mother who aspires to have her children attend the college of their choice, I worry if I don't send them to (fill in the blank with meaningful experience z), I am not keeping up with the Joneses. Will my children suffer?

In many ways, I am as guilty as the next striving parent of a college-bound high-school student. My kids do go to private school and have attended summer camps (though not via private jet) and my son did study at Brown University last summer. I rationalize these choices by acknowledging I am an “education mama” -- someone who values education and is willing to make sacrifices for it. My goal is to give my children the same gift my parents gave me: A chance to enter adulthood debt-free with the best education possible to aid them in their life journey. But, I draw the line at paying someone to hire them.

This summer my son is working as an unpaid intern at an iPhone app start-up. Sure it will look good on his college applications and it should. I didn’t pay anyone to get him the job; he got it the old fashioned way. He reached out to the parents of his friends, told them what he wanted to do, they graciously made introductions to companies they knew, he interviewed, and -- voila! -- he got the job. Straight out of job hunting 101: work your network. Now that he knows how to do it, hopefully next time he will actually get paid.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share that there is a movement afoot to try and require all internships be paid and to ban unpaid internships as illegal BlogHer Adrienne Royer argues passionately about the benefits of unpaid internships and the need to keep the government out of regulating them. Blogger Judy Anne Cavey offers detailed information on the suggested regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor.

If you’d like more information on this issue, you can click here to listen to an NPR broadcast with Tom Ashbrook on “Paying to Work For Free.”




Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen

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