By Sam Harshbarger
The Tower (Princeton, NJ)
High school is a time of trials and tribulations in many students’ lives. Students’ desires for self-discovery are hindered by the daunting challenge of the college admissions process. Internships, once predominantly a concern for college students, are increasingly coveted by high schoolers in an environment of ever greater stress and competition. As evidenced by recent studies, new opportunities to spend summers interning at high-level firms and government offices are not distributed equitably. As a consequence, the summer has become an opportunity for the better-off to accumulate even greater social capital while low-income students are relegated to traditional summer jobs that, while practical, don’t offer the same exposure to future career paths that internships do.
To start, disparities in internships nationally can, in part, be explained by geography. For the vast majority of students around the country, America’s top universities, businesses, and institutions remain out of reach and out of sight, concentrated in the regions surrounding Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Capitol Hill. Princeton, New Jersey itself fits right into this corridor of power and opportunity — a short train ride away from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City, and home to one of America’s most prestigious universities. As a cold hard fact of geographic position, it is no wonder that Princeton’s elite would find summer opportunities at the top rungs of American society.
Internships are a valuable way for students to gain experience and connections for future career opportunities. While student summer jobs tend not to be permanent career paths, high school summer internships have a high correlation with future career choice, according to a 2013 University of Algarve study. The experience and knowledge students gain through internships can indeed reinforce their interest in a particular field. However, the researchers also found that the connections you build with employers are just as critical.
This is the concept of social capital: the notion that networks have a real financial value. Internships in businesses, government, and the sciences lead to the formation of critical career networks that can lead to future opportunity. According to a 2010 study of high school science lab internships by the University of Victoria, lab research summer internships for high schoolers make students feel significantly more invested in the field, and gives them the skills and connections to continue pursuing scientific research beyond high school.
The problem? Less well-off students simply don’t possess the connections that open up internship opportunities and allow them to build up social capital in the first place. The education and occupation of parents plays a vital role in landing valuable internships for their children— professors and bankers can get their kids positions in the research lab or office that underprivileged students can only dream of. And with 46.5% of all internships the unpaid kind (according to a 2014 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers), lower-income students often find that they can’t afford to work for free, while their high-income counterparts have the financial means to take advantage of opportunities whether they’re being paid or not. Alarmingly, the nature of modern internships, from the importance of connections to the frequent absence of compensation, makes them increasingly inaccessible to the students who need them most.
High School students are mixed on the issue. According to data collected in surveys by The Tower, only 69 percent of students believe that internships are more readily available to students of a high socioeconomic status. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the Rutgers University WINLAB, many of our peers intern at prestigious research institutions and major government agencies. While these opportunities are wonderful, it should be recognized that they are not universally available. The persistence of the divide between our community’s upper crust and the majority manifests itself perfectly in the internship-job divide. As long as we refuse to recognize this gap, our commitment to lessening socioeconomic inequality is nothing more than a fraud perpetuated under the cover of hollow progressive rhetoric.
Cash-strapped schools don’t have the resources and connections to help students obtain internships like dedicated career resource centers at well-endowed private schools.
In Princeton, a university town, perhaps even more than other cities there exists large disparities of opportunity caused by wealth and inequities of social capital. One example is how the children of Princeton University faculty are far more likely than their peers without faculty connections to be accepted to Princeton. In such a case, this type of relationship could be reduced to a given monetary sum — the value of their Princeton University education, with their chances of admission without said connections factored in. While this is true of almost every university in the country, this represents a coordinated and systemic perpetuation of socioeconomic standing, filling our nation’s leading schools with those already amongst the upper echelons. This mimics the favoring of the economic and social establishment in internship and early career opportunities.
However, all of this is not to say student summer jobs do not provide opportunities that internships do not offer. Studs Terkel’s oral history “Working” gives a stunning account of the subtle lessons of even what may be described as menial labor, as well as the universally recognized self-worth that employment and a steady income provides. As David M. Axelrod, a Senior Advisor to President Obama, said “A job is more than just an income — it’s about dignity and self-respect.” Earning your own income as a high school student, and learning the true value of money, sets you on the right path to personal financial responsibility and independence.
Photo Credit: Maryland GovPics