To all college students out there: How many hours do you work per week? What baskets does your work fall under? What is your target hourly wage per basket? What is your real hourly wage?

If you can’t answer these questions, then I have a follow-up: How many unpaid internships have you taken since graduating from high school? (I’ll bet it’s more than one.)

As students, we are encouraged not to think about, or worse, entirely disregard the idea that our work provides a concrete value. The same people who preach these views are ironically eager to have student employees or interns work for them for free. This must change, my brothers and sisters. Consider this a call to arms. Let us be done with our unpaid internships and terrible student jobs. It is time to reconsider and re-recognize the value of your own work.

I take the opposite view – I think it’s incredibly important for students to consider the value of our work and the compensation we receive, or should receive for work.

Practically speaking, if you’re in college you can plan on leaving with a pile of debt equal to several years’ earnings. Good luck taking care of that if you don’t take a value-maximizing approach to your finances.

Money is important, of course. For me, however, a mindset of self-worth is more valuable, and will pay a better return on investment in the long run. How are you supposed to have any confidence in the work you do if your employer attaches so little value to you? How are you to obtain any idea of the fair market value of your skill set if you spend four years giving away your talents in college? And after you graduate, how are you to walk into a job negotiation and state the price you think you’re worth with a straight face, if you’ve never done so before?

I find being paid for the work I do to be immensely empowering, and it’s not just in the sense of “Oh, now I can go buy food for the week!” To me, being handed a check with thanks from my client makes me think the following: “I have a certain opinion about the value I can offer, and this opinion is shared by an independent person who has chosen to hire me. We have exchanged value – my time and expertise for his money, and we are both walking away with a feeling of added value.”

This is why I refuse to work for free: it’s simply not possible for an employer/client to appreciate or respect a relationship in which they give out nothing of value. And so I urge all you students out there to examine the work you do and the value you gain (or don’t gain) from it.

Isn’t one of the primary motivating reasons that people attend college so that they can have respect in the future? Why defer that gratification? Why defer respect in a professional environment? Let me put it simply: there isn’t a good reason to defer respect in a professional environment. And every time you agree to take on an unpaid internship or, you automatically establish a negative power dynamic in your professional relationships.

Using myself as an example, I divide everything not fun that I do into three categories: academic, income generating, or development:

  • Academic work is what will get me my BSBA in a year. I receive no money for it, though I do try to cross-purpose any class projects so that I can use them in other baskets. I do this work with the belief that having a college degree will give me more value in the future than the value I would gain from not having a degree but working these four years. If I didn’t believe this, I would drop out of college.
  • Income generating work makes me money. Professionally, these would be my business development, web design, and technology training activities. Preparing for competitions, pursuing leads, applying for jobs, etc. also fall into this category, based on the expectation of resulting future income.
  • Development work is anything that will let me function more effectively, whether through better efficiency, organization, reputation, or knowledge. I consider my website to be development work, as are updating my résumé, writing articles, reading about technology trends, and setting up invoicing and time tracking software.

If a task isn’t academic, income generating, or development-related then I don’t do it.

As a final thought, I want to propose four guidelines for reconsidering how and why you’ll work:

No Free Lunch
  1. Don’t work for free. As the title says, your time is valuable! It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman political science major or on your way to med school as magna cum laude, you have skills and experience that you can bring to the table – you just have to figure out at which tables you want to sit.
  2. Don’t barter. When negotiating with a student, a client/employer will usually try to barter with you as a first tactic. Bartering is a trade for something other than cash. For a client, the most often used tactic is, “Do this project for free and I’ll have future paid work for you. Call this a test.” Employers will go with, “You’ll gain experience working with me that you can take into future [paid] jobs.” In either case, politely explain that you’ll have to insist on being paid – if they refuse, wish them the best of luck and walk away… which leads us to #3…
  3. You can do better. Have the courage to turn down offers that aren’t valuable to you. An unpaid summer internship fetching coffee isn’t necessarily better than spending a few weeks at home developing your professional skills and strategizing on how to market them. Also, always have a value threshold in mind. “If I can’t make more than $15/hour at an internship, I’ll go home and work retail part-time, while pursing leads for next fall.” Personally, I think a good starting point for value is to look at what you’re making at your current campus job, and double it.
  4. You may not need money, but you do need respect. Regardless of your financial situation, your major, or how much you value monetary success versus social work, you need to be respected for what you contribute. Working without respect is soul draining; working for free without respect is slavery. You might ultimately disagree with me about unpaid work, but always remember that you and your time are valuable and that you should be treated as such.

(Guest post by Cooper Dukes. Visit his blog here.) This version of the article was edited by the staff members of the Website.