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Hiring great interns, even if you can’t pay them $84,000 a year

Twitter’s cafeteria. Interns at the social network earn an average of $6,791 a month.

FORTUNE — If you ever worked as a summer intern, you probably earned a pittance (if you were paid at all). And that was okay, because you were doing it mostly for the experience, right? On the whole, that hasn’t changed much: The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that the average undergraduate intern in the U.S. will earn around $16 an hour, or $2,500 a month, this year.

Some, however, will pull down a lot more. Consider: Summer help at big-data-analysis software firm Palantir (it’s named after a magic stone in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) will make an average of $7,012 per month, or a little over $84,000 on an annualized basis, according to a recent list of the top-paying U.S. internships by career site Glassdoor. That’s not too shabby, considering that median household income in the U.S. now stands at $53,046.

Twitter (TWTR) interns will do pretty well too, at $6,791 per month, while LinkedIn (LNKD), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), and eBay (EBAY) are all offering average monthly pay over $6,000. Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) come close, at $5,969 and $5,723. Most of the companies that made Glassdoor’s list are high-flying tech companies, but even oil exploration giant Schlumberger, last in the ranking, plans to pay its interns a monthly stipend of $4,634.

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“The vast majority of employers can’t pay interns anything close to these figures,” notes Allison Willoughby, senior vice president of people at Glassdoor. But most companies don’t have to. Glassdoor’s surveys of interns themselves show that the only thing that matters more than money is “real world experience,” which eight out of 10 interns said was more important to them than the size of their paycheck.

“Interns do not want to be fetching coffee. They want employers to give them substantive work to do,” Willoughby says. “It takes a lot of thought beforehand” — including a plan for evaluating the kids’ work when the internship ends: “They really want an honest performance appraisal, so they know how they did.”

What else does it take to recruit topnotch talent when you can’t pay top dollar? One cost-free feature of an attractive internship program is “transparency,” Willoughby says. “The experience has to give people a true taste of what it would be like to work there.”

That’s partly just practical. Summer workers are a big pool of potential new hires: NACE reports that almost 60% of employers offer full-time jobs to their interns after graduation. But it’s also a matter of fairness, so that interns can see what they might be getting into. A lawyer by training, Willoughby did her share of summer stints at law firms “where it was all parties all the time — not at all what a real job there would be like,” she says.

By contrast, “some tech companies that offer the highest-paying internships are going to demand a lot of the interns they bring on board. It’s partly a way of screening out anybody who doesn’t want to work 24/7.”

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Glassdoor’s surveys show, too, that interns want contact with top management, or at least a chance to meet the people in charge and maybe even ask a few questions. Tech companies, especially those that are still relatively small, are appealing in large part because “interns know that they’ll be working side by side with decision makers, at least some of the time,” notes Willoughby.

“It can be tough to replicate that in a huge organization,” she adds. “But the more hands-on and involved senior people can be, the better the chances of attracting great interns” — the kind that may be sitting in the C-suite themselves someday.