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Are unpaid internships ethical?

Unpaid internships are intended to offer students with little work experience the opportunity to learn new skills and strengthen their resumes in a low-stakes, supportive environment. However, many unpaid interns take on similar responsibilities to those in paid roles although they are working without pay. Even further, the ability to work without pay requires a level of financial stability that most low-income students do not have, making the opportunities for career advancement offered by these internships inaccessible to students who do not already have relative financial privilege. While unpaid internships can be beneficial to college students, the question remains: Are unpaid internships ethical?


How The Paid Internship Movement Has Evolved

The new rules of internships

Additional resources to think about

Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act
This fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Labor provides information to help determine whether interns are entitled to minimum wages and overtime pay under the FLSA.

What are unpaid internships costing us? | Peter Bateman | TEDxMonashUniversity
This talk investigates who unpaid internships benefit and who they do not, ultimately asking how we can make the essential practice of internships fair.

Unpaid Internship Impact on the Labor Market
This article from Investopedia looks at the benefits of unpaid internships to employers, interns, and academic institutions while questioning the ethics of unpaid internships more broadly.

Why Unpaid Internships Still Exist in Corporate America
With nearly 50% of the internships in 2021 being unpaid, this video from CNBC explores why unpaid internships are still so prevalent in the U.S.’s workforce.

Balancing Work and Learning: Implications for Low-Income Students | Georgetown University
This report looks at the ways being a low-income student effects career outcomes for college students.


Who created this message?

  • What kind of “text” is it?
  • How similar or different is it to others of the same genre?
  • What are the various elements (building blocks) that make up the whole?


What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

  • What do you notice (about the way the message is constructed)? 
  • What’s the emotional appeal?
  • What makes it seem “real?”
  • What's the emotional appeal? Persuasive devices used?

How might different people understand this message differently from me?

  • How many other interpretations could there be?
  • How could we hear about them?
  • How can you explain the different responses?

What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

  • What type of person is the reader/watcher/listener invited to identify with?
  • What ideas or perspectives are left out?
  • How would you find what’s missing?
  • What judgments or statements are made about how we treat other people?


Why is this message being sent?

  • What's being sold in this message? What's being told? 
  • Who is served by or  benefits from the message
    – the public?
    – private interests?
    – individuals?
    – institutions?

5 Key Questions of Media Literacy used with permission from the Center for Media Literacy.
Copyright 2002-2021, Center for Media Literacy,


Are unpaid internships ethical?

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