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Interning on Capitol Hill: Great opportunity for America’s wealthiest undergrads

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This month, hundreds of college students and recent college graduates from across the country will travel to Washington, D.C. for summer internships on Capitol Hill.  Interns typically work full or part-time for approximately ten weeks in a U.S. senator or representative’s personal or committee office.  During that time, they answer phones, sort mail, conduct short research projects, and draft correspondence for their employer’s staff.  While these are important skills to learn, interns are really here for the opportunity to rub shoulders with our nation’s political leaders, make connections for future employment, or to list the internship on a law school or graduate school application.  Unfortunately, these life-changing positions are unpaid, making them largely inaccessible to all but the nation’s wealthiest students. 

While some college students have the luxury of working unpaid for a summer, most do not.  A 2013 College Student Pulse survey conducted by YouGov for Citi and Seventeen Magazine revealed that 80 percent of college students work while going to school.  For many, summer income is essential for finishing college.  For summer Hill interns, particularly those arriving from outside the D.C. metro region, securing a paid position in addition to an internship is highly impractical. The opportunity cost of foregoing a summer’s income is one obstacle, but the greater obstacle is the cost of living in Washington, D.C., one of America’s most expensive cities.

{mosads}A March 12 article in the Washington Post reported that median rent for one-bedroom D.C. apartments has reached $2,000.  According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, there are almost no more apartments in D.C.’s open market that rent for less than $800 a month.  Unfortunately for summer interns, rents are routinely higher for short-term summer leases.  Many interns look for housing in the nearby Georgetown Law and George Washington University dormitories, where summer rents reach $400 per week.  On top of this, don’t forget transportation costs and entertainment expenses–this is summer vacation after all.  Especially for students traveling great distances from home, the undertaking is too much to bear.  This is more than unfortunate, given the many benefits of working as a congressional intern.

Congressional internships are the only way to see the legislative process in action as a student.  Interns spend days with top policymakers and observe meetings with guests representing a myriad of political perspectives.  For this reason, they are highly regarded resume builders for law school and graduate school applicants. For those hoping to work immediately after college, the most important perk of interning is making connections with office staffers who may help them land a coveted full-time Hill position.  Unpaid internships are the primary path to full-time employment on the Hill. Many staffers estimate that over 90 percent of entry-level hires worked as unpaid interns before starting.    

To illustrate the inherent unfairness of this hiring pattern, I often tell the story of my three college friends who moved to D.C. days after graduation.  They all dreamed of working as staff assistants on the Hill and all began working as unpaid interns.  Several weeks into the summer, they had exhausted themselves with interviews, but found no full-time job opportunities.  Finally, around mid-September one of my friends was forced to take a less glamorous, but paid, position at a local advocacy organization.  Another did the same thing, although he managed to hold out until the winter.  Only one of my friends managed to land a full-time position on the Hill, and only because he had the family resources necessary to work unpaid in D.C. for nearly a year, waiting for a position to open up.  This is not atypical.  Recent college graduates often work for months as unpaid interns before being picked up for a full-time position.    

Should the opportunity to work as a full-time staffer in our nation’s legislative branch be, in practice, reserved for the wealthy?  It should not.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens under current conditions.   The fact that entry-level staffers earn just over $29,000 per year only exacerbates the problem.  Even if they get in the door, many students cannot live safely on that salary in a city as expensive as D.C.  In reality, those who manage to do so rely on their parents to pay the difference.   

Working on Capitol Hill as an intern, or later as a paid staffer, opens professional doors and is a richly rewarding career opportunity.  All students should have a shot at it.  Unfortunately the hiring process, as it currently operates, excludes all but America’s wealthiest students.

King is a recent Georgetown Law graduate and former Capitol Hill intern.  


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