Internships are steppingstones to future careers, but the unpaid stints can often put students in a bind — especially those who can't afford to take a job without a paycheck.

It's why the nonprofit Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation has doled out $5.2 million to 40 colleges in its Career Ready Internship grant — including 10 colleges in Minnesota — to help turn unpaid internships into paid ones. The group recognizes that unpaid internships could give a competitive advantage to wealthy students while leaving others behind.

Colleges awarded the grant will work with businesses to create new paid internships with the funds and pay students who are holding unpaid internships. The U.S. Department of Labor has a six-factor legality test for unpaid internships, mandating that interns don't take the spots of regular employees and that the employers don't receive immediate benefits from the work of interns.

"Low-income students particularly have to choose between taking an unpaid internship in their field of study or perhaps working at a fast-food restaurant, because they need the paycheck," said Amy Kerwin with Great Lakes Higher Education.

The group's mission is to see more students complete their college program — especially students of color.

Universities could apply to Great Lakes Higher Education for up to $150,000 for the 2014-15 school year, and the schools selected had a plan for working with businesses to create paid internships. In Minnesota, the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, St. Catherine University, Metropolitan State University, Hamline University, College of St. Benedict and Augsburg College each received about $150,000.

The grant program is a relaunch of a smaller pilot that ran in Wisconsin last year, which was half the size of the 2014 program with about half the money. With the program, 98 percent of these interns completed their degrees or returned to school the next semester.

"Students that do participate in an internship while in college have a higher likelihood of completing their degree and graduating," she said.