Job listings on Craigslist these days are full of companies looking for young people willing to work for no salary. In New York, internships are available at businesses ranging from advertising agencies in midtown to a “cake studio” in Brooklyn. They want people who are “positive” and “energetic.” And one more thing: they want college students. As one agency looking for an unpaid videographer put it, “PLEASE NOTE: You must be in school and receive school credit in order to join us.”
Why would companies care about college credit? Because employers, students and colleges have all been caught in the complex web of credentialing, job training and financial self-interest that increasingly characterizes American higher education.
Interning has become the norm: a survey of the class of 2012 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that a majority had graduated with an internship or cooperative education experience. (Co-ops are traditionally tightly integrated into academic programs, run full time and can add a year to attaining a bachelor’s degree; internships tend to be relatively short, one-off stints.)
The rise of college internships reflects tectonic shifts in the structure of the American economy. Even as globalization helped eliminate large numbers of well-paying blue-collar jobs, new industries evolved, but with jobs requiring a college degree. In 1971, American colleges and universities granted about 155,000 bachelor’s degrees in the social sciences and history, compared with some 115,000 in business. By 2011, the number of social science and history degrees had increased to only about 177,000, though the total number of graduates had more than doubled. Degrees in business, by contrast, swelled to more than 365,000, making it by far the most popular undergraduate major.