How Do You Determine Scholarship Amounts for Unpaid Internships?

September 21, 2020 | By NACE Staff

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TAGS: best practices, compensation, Internships, nace insights, operations,

Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

Do you offer scholarships for unpaid or underpaid internships? Recently, in her research as assistant director of internships at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Allie Medellin wondered about providing scholarships for students whose internships are unpaid or those that “pay below state minimum wage or those which offer pay insufficient for necessary costs of living (i.e. housing, transportation, food, etc.).”

How, she asked members of the NACE Community, do you estimate an appropriate scholarship amount? Several of her colleagues offered their solutions:

At Cornell College we offer funding for for-credit internships through the career office. Rather than scholarship levels, we ask every applicant to submit a budget, including transportation costs, housing costs (if they haven't found lodging, they would provide three options and we would fund the average amount), meal costs (offering urban/high cost of living, average cost of living, and rural/low cost of living per week options), and miscellaneous costs relating to other expenses needed for the internship. We will fund those amounts up to a maximum (we have a few different maximums depending on a few factors). We also take pay into account. We will provide funding for any unpaid internship or paid internship that does not cover the cost of expenses. We are still tweaking the program, but it works well for us. You can find more info on our website.

Lindsey Meza, associate director, Career Coaching and Operations, Cornell College

We started a similar program last spring. We modeled ours after the Nazareth College Spark Grant program— We set the maximum amount of the scholarship at $3,000; however, students submit a budget, so many times we don't award the maximum. Some may just need travel help or some other one-time expense. You can see how ours is set up at

Steve Sellars, experiential education coordinator, West Texas A&M University

Last year was my school's first time offering “supplemental”' internship funding to students who were either unpaid or underpaid for their internship experiences. We had a cap on the money at $1,000 each, as there are a number of other funding sources (from departments). A few lessons we learned in the process:

  • Provide students a budget template with explanations and resources (like a cost of living calculator and where to pull grocery costs). Though we serve mostly graduate students, we believe that having a template will make the assessment process fair. Especially for our first-gen students who may not even know what to ask for/what could be covered by the funding (e.g., we provided funds for professional clothing)
  • Define what is considered “underpaid” clearly and in advance:
    • I like the idea of using the cost of living as a benchmark, but that could add a lot of extra work to your review committee. If there is a standard way the student could identify this themselves and include it in the application, I would highly recommend it.
  • For your review committee:
    • Clearly define the requirements and benchmarks to qualify for funding.
    • Identify how partial awards will be awarded.
    • Set a (flexible) list for what you will cover/not cover and try to remain consistent.
      • This came out of a number of students asks for assistance with paying for student loans or car notes. We decided not to cover these expenses and wrote out justification as to why not.
      • We did, however, cover unexpected medical bills and medication. We also wrote out explanations for this decision in the future.

Krystle Forbes, career services coordinator, University of Michigan - School of Public Health

Berea College serves students who have very limited financial resources (no one pays tuition here) and has provided a combination of generous donor and/or institutional funding to students participating in full-time unpaid/underpaid summer internships for many years. Since the 2011-2012 academic year, I have been using a model based on individual estimated expense budgets, similar to those Lindsey described (above), that covered roundtrip transportation/airfare, commuting, housing, meals, and personal expenses for eight to 10 weeks. For 2021, we are moving to a tiered model that specifies five different levels of funding based on the amounts we previously provided to interns in different cities/geographic areas (Level 1: Special Circumstances/Housing Provided $2,000; Level 2: Low Cost $3,000; Level 3: Moderate Cost $3,500; Level 4: Moderate-to-High Cost $5,000; Level 5: High Cost $6,500). We chose to use standard grant levels because of scale (close to 300 summer interns in 33 states and nine countries, pre-COVID) and the wide range of costs—from students living at home doing remote/virtual internships to those in New York where short-term housing alone is $4,000 for the summer. It is essential from an equity perspective, that all students be able to participate in internships, so it's great that you are able to help make it possible!

Esther Livingston, director of internships, Berea College

How are you helping unpaid and underpaid interns? Join the conversation in the NACE Community.

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