Internships and Careers

How much would you pay for a career-making internship? $500? $2,000? Try $6,000. That's what a growing number of students are paying to secure coveted summer spots with Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch, Tommy Hilfiger and America's other leading companies. Want something more international? For $9,000 you can snag an internship (housing included) with Barclays in London, Yahoo's office in Barcelona or at Ogilvy in Hong Kong.

Meritocracy isn't dead, but it may be losing out to a handful of internship placement services that promise career-enhancing opportunities-for a price. How does it work? "We get your résumé on the top of the stack," says Eric Lochtefeld, founder and CEO of University of Dreams. The six-year-old intern placement service, based in Los Gatos, Calif., employs 46 staffers who maintain relationships with HR departments at hotshot companies, securing interviews for its 1,200 student-clients. Like others in his nascent industry, Lochtefeld portrays his service as a way to democratize networking for the average student. Of course, his definition of average is limited to students with at least $6,000 at their disposal.

Apparently there are plenty of parents willing and able to pay that price. Gen Y's parents are no strangers to giving their children a boost, from private tutoring to college counseling. Internship placement services, says Lochtefeld, are the next logical investment in a well-groomed student's success. "As a parent, what's the one thing I'm willing to spend more money on? My child's education," says Steve O'Hara, a financial planner in Chicago. When his daughter Jamie wanted to break into the movie industry, O'Hara didn't have the connections to make it happen. "We certainly didn't have the time or a clue of how to [get her in the door]," he says. Since they were already spending $45,000 a year to send Jamie to the University of Michigan, an additional $7,000 investment in University of Dreams did not seem so outrageous. His daughter landed an internship at Myriad Pictures (which put out acclaimed films like "Kinsey" and "The Good Girl") and eventually got a full-time job at a Beverly Hills talent agency.

There are a few less expensive alternatives to University of Dreams. Fast-Track Internships, a national placement service based in Texas, charges $699 and guarantees that its clients will receive two offers for unpaid internships. The fee jumps to $999 if you want paid internships. In Washington, D.C., there's the Washington Internship Program. It polishes student résumés and cover letters, but the $3,400 fee includes a professional editor, who coaches students during their internships, even going so far as editing a student's interoffice memos or helping journalism interns with drafts of their stories.

Harsh Agarwal, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, didn't need an editor; it was the connections promised by University of Dreams that sold him and his family. With the placement firm's help, Agarwal landed an internship at Merrill Lynch during his sophomore year. It was a summer spot typically snagged by older students, often from the Ivy League. Agarwal says he tried working with his career center, but in the end University of Dreams was the only service that could guarantee such a prime position. "It was hard decision and an expensive one," he says. "But it was worth every penny." He returned to University of Dreams for a second summer and right out of college began a career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.

Why would such elite companies work with University of Dreams and other placement firms? Largely because it frees them from sorting through thousands of applications; they essentially get an intern recruiter free of charge. "We just have one more person that can verify these kids are interested, that they want to get into the company and get exposure," says a representative of a major entertainment company (which asked not to be named) that regularly hires through University of Dreams.

But what about students who can't afford the hefty price? "It just makes me angry that there are so many people who couldn't afford this program who went the legitimate route," says Andrea Bartz, a senior at Northwestern University and a veteran of four internships-none of which she paid to secure. "It's absurd. It's not how internships should work."

Well, maybe not how internships used to work. But if programs like University of Dreams continue to grow, landing key internships may involve less searching and more spending, a dream for some students and a nightmare for others.