Students Paying for Unpaid Internships: Carol’s Take

Searching for a job.  Handing out resumes.  Setting up informational interviews.  Writing thank you notes.  We’ve all been there – the challenging (and occasionally exhilarating!) world of the job search.  Given all of the frustration and hard work involved in searching for a job, would you pay to have someone else take care of it for you?  For your kids?

Today’s article discusses the growing number of students paying thousands of dollars for unpaid summer internships at prestigious companies.  While companies like the “University of Dreams” laud their efforts to “facilitate” students’ internship searches and match them with the right companies, I believe they are doing students a huge disservice.

Now, if you’re like most parents, you’re probably saying, “My job is to protect my kid and provide them with the best life possible.  If I can prevent them from going through the misery of a job search and secure them a great career opportunity at the same time, why not?”

Here’s why:

While we all complain about searching for a job from time to time, the process of doing so teaches important skills:  Persistence.  Resume writing.  The ability to deal with rejection.  Accountability.  Networking skills.  Resourcefulness.  Maintaining a positive attitude.  Interview skills.  ALL of these skills are important and can benefit students in their future career, and ALL of these skills are rendered unnecessary by expensive internship placement services.

What is more, internship placement services foster a dangerous sense of entitlement in students.  When parents pay for these services, students are simply “handed” a job at a prestigious firm without having to do any work – a job based not on their merits, but on the fact that their family can afford this costly service.

My advice?  As your students move ever closer to entering the job world, don’t “buy” an internship to ease their transition -  let them dive into the job search on their own two feet.  Of course, you can prepare them in a very different way: let them know you’re behind them all the way, and make sure they have the emotional intelligence, persistence and humility to succeed.

Unpaid Work, but They Pay for Privilege

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Students attending a panel discussion at New York University about internships and the companies that assist in obtaining them.

With paying jobs so hard to get in this weak market, a lot of college graduates would gladly settle for a nonpaying internship. But even then, they are competing with laid-off employees with far more experience.

So growing numbers of new graduates — or, more often, their parents — are paying thousands of dollars to services that help them land internships.

Call these unpaid internships that you pay for.

“It’s kind of crazy,” said David Gaston, director of the University of Kansas career center. “The demand for internships in the past 5, 10 years has opened up this huge market. At this point, all we can do is teach students to understand that they’re paying and to ask the right questions.”

Not that the parents are complaining. Andrew Topel’s parents paid $8,000 this year to a service that helped their son, a junior at the University of Tampa, get a summer job as an assistant at Ford Models, a top agency in New York.

“It would’ve been awfully difficult” to get a job like that, said Andrew’s father, Avrim Topel, “without having a friend or knowing somebody with a personal contact.” Andrew completed the eight-week internship in July and was invited to return for another summer or to interview for a job after graduation.

Andrew’s parents used a company called the University of Dreams, the largest and most visible player in an industry that has boomed in recent years as internship experience has become a near-necessity on any competitive entry-level résumé.

The company says it saw a spike in interest this year due to the downturn, as the number of applicants surged above 9,000, 30 percent higher than in 2008. And unlike prior years, the company says, a significant number of its clients were recent graduates, rather than the usual college juniors.

The program advertises a guaranteed internship placement, eight weeks of summer housing, five meals a week, seminars and tours around New York City for $7,999. It has a full-time staff of 45, and says it placed 1,600 student interns in 13 cities around the world this year, charging up to $9,450 for a program in London and as little as $5,499 in Costa Rica.

The money goes to the University of Dreams and the other middlemen like it. Officials at the company say they are able to wrangle hard-to-get internships for their clients because they have developed extensive working relationships with a variety of employers. They also have an aggressive staff who know who to call where. Their network of contacts, they say, is often as crucial as hard work in professional advancement.

Read more…

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6 Responses to “Students Paying for Unpaid Internships: Carol’s Take”

  1. Proud Parent says:

    Carol, I am a bit shocked by your stance on these internship service firms. Although I agree that you should never pay a firm to “hand” a student an internship, I don’t know that you fully covered what these service firms provide. The reason I am so adament about this subject, is that my daughter participated in the University of Dreams in London, and they didn’t “hand” her an internship. I was really impressed with the professional development aspect of the program, as they taught my daughter how to build a resume, as well as they trained her on how to interview successfully. Comparatively, I am embarassed to say that the money I invested in her college education (100,000+) did nothing to prepare her for, or assist in helping her pursue fashion internships in London. Thankfully, University of Dreams provided housing, meals and 24 hours staff. They were over the top professional in all aspects and exceeded my expectations in all facets–including organizing activities to get aquainted to London. Overall, until career centers do more on their campuses, I would highly recommend parents to research these professional development programs and not just to “protect their kids and provide them with the best life possible” but to really watch them mature and grow professionally. I think University of Dreams was one of the most beneficial investments I have ever made.

  2. carol carter says:

    Thank you for your perspective. Please know that I realize that these firms have their place. I still believe that it is incumbent on students–beginning in high school–to seek real world experiences while they are in college through internships and part-time jobs. Many deserving students whose parents can’t afford such services need to rely on their own connections and personal initiative to forge these contacts on their own. I want to encourage all students to that–those who are from disadvantaged as well as advantaged families–because, eventually they will be working side by side in the global workplace.

    Certainly some fields–like fashion design–may be harder for students to make those contacts. I am interested in showing all aspects of these options so that students and parents can see the trade-offs of different decisions. Thanks for sharing your perspective and I hope I have helped you to gain a better sense of my point of view.

    All the best,

  3. Proud Parent says:

    Thank you for your opinion, and I do agree that not everyone can afford to do this internship program (although I believe we were offered a scholarship when my daughter applied). However, I don’t agree with your arguement where you feel like utilizing an internship program will give my daughter a sense of entitlement when it comes to job searching, as stated in your opening argument. I feel University of Dreams filled the gap that her university failed to fill with regard to teaching her how to find an internship. University of Dreams taught her the essential skills necessary to get a job– how to interview, create a resume, network, and excel in the work world. Additionally, University of Dreams made it possible for her to gain experience in the the global workplace. If she would have tried organizing this trip on her own, first of all, I wouldn’t have felt very comfortable letting her spend a summer in London by herself, and second, it wouldn’t be cheap to fund an adventure like this on her own. All things considered, I feel like this is an investment I would never take back.

    In regards to the “disadvantaged families” (and by no means is my family advantaged as we took out a loan), I feel a loan, or searching for scholarships for something that has a direct impact on your career (similar to investing in college), is well worth the interest paid.

  4. Former Intern says:

    As a former college intern, I have to say that I agree with Carol on this one. In college, there was no way my parents could have afforded a program like University of Dreams – even if they could have taken out loans. While I can see the benefits that would have been provided by that, I am actually glad in the end that I had the opportunity to forge out on my own.

    I think that, while it’s great to work for a prestigious company and have an “in” as soon as you can, the path you take to get there is equally important. I take a great deal of pride in the fact that I found an internship through my own search in college, and that I was able to turn success in that internship into a great case for getting my first job after graduation.

    I think the skills that “Proud Parent” mentions – “how to interview, create a resume, network, and excel in the work world” – are absolutely crucial, and it truly is unfortunate if your school doesn’t provide those for you. However, those are also things I feel I learned by experience – by “pounding the pavement”, seeking advice from friends, family and professional mentors, and simply “diving in” to the work world and learning how to excel by being open to feedback and development.

    Proud Parent, it sounds like you had the right intentions in mind and made sure your student understood the value of hard work, humility, and commitment. Sadly, not everyone has that great parental support network, or the resources to afford a program like University of Dreams – so it’s also important to recognize the critical value of the “do it yourself” method – and all of the great experience that can bring.

  5. carol carter says:

    Perhaps another question both students and parents can ask is: what experiences have I forged on my own? If students have had a University of Dreams experience, or something similar, then as an employer, I would be curious about the things they have done through leadership, volunteer work, or some other outside-of-school activity which really showed them who they are. IIn other words, I want to see the courageous difficulties that they have faced and surmounted. The best employees are typically the ones who have challenged themselves a great deal, learned first-hand about difficulty through the experience of their own grist, and surmounted some number of difficulties in making their dreams happen. As long as students can give me those kinds of examples, I don’t mind if their parents got them “grand-fathered” into an Ivy League or paid for their summer internship because they can prove that they know can create their own way.

  6. Kelly Carson says:

    As a former LifeBound intern and current employee, I’m sure I have a bit of bias when it comes to the subject of this blog post. However, I feel compelled to weigh in – so I’ll try to be as objective as I can!

    First, let me say that I can certainly see the benefits and allure of University of Dreams. However, I also come from a family that could not have afforded such a program. Taking a look at the UoD website, I see a lot of talk about “prestigious internships” in the “company and field of your choice” with “99% success rates*. To me, that simply doesn’t reflect the reality of the job market. An unexpected side effect of UoD is that it doesn’t allow for the opportunity to explore or keep an open mind – if students know what industry or what company they want, then that’s what they get. I think that the times when I’ve learned the most from my career experiences are the times when things didn’t go as expected – the adaptability I learned from that was truly important.

    In college, I went through lots and lots of searching before finding my first internship – and learned a lot in the process. My internship “linkup” happened through an academic honor society- I saw a posting with LifeBound, sent in my resume, did a phone interview, and ended up with the best internship I could have asked for. Of course, if you had asked me at the time, I would never have had the wherewithal to say I wanted a job in “Educational Publishing” or “Student Success” – I found the job with LifeBound because I kept an open mind, and it was better than I could have hoped.

    Here’s the other thing – I would never have learned as much from my summer internships if I had received all of the “perks” that University of Dreams provides. Here’s a list directly from their website:

    Included in the program:
    * A Guaranteed Internship in the industry of your choice and a company you approve
    * Housing at Host Universities
    * Meal plan*
    * Organized weekend activities
    * Career seminars via our weekly Speaker Series
    * A professionally revised resume
    * Expert interview coaching
    * Daily transportation to and from work
    * Professional staff assistance
    * Welcome Reception
    * Orientation
    * Closing Ceremony
    * Program Gifts
    * Visa Sponsorship Assistance
    * Contract Academic Course Credit

    By taking care of meals, food, budget, entertainment, resume development, etc., UoD seems to minimize the crucial personal development aspect of a summer internship. Having an internship is like a “trial run” of being in the job world after college – finding a place, budgeting for meals, transportation, making new friends, finding work/life balance, developing as an employee – those are all things that I think are just as crucial as the job itself.

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