Do Your Interns Work For Free?

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Colleges Shouldn’t Stick Interns With the Bill

By Ross Perlin

It’s bad enough that students working free of charge is the new normal, but they shouldn’t have to pay colleges to let them do it.

At institutions across the country, full-time, unpaid internships required for graduation are often charged at or near the normal tuition rate. In many cases, students seeking to avoid this expense are not permitted to find and complete the needed internship on their own. The result is tantamount to outsourcing part of a student’s degree while still sticking them with the bill (which can run upward of $14,000).

At a time when they’re usually accessing far fewer college services, not taking classes, and working a full-time job off-campus, students surely deserve a break. What they pay should be commensurate with what the school is directly providing. Yet somehow it’s the other way around—and internship requirements proliferate. Career centers provide little considered counsel about steering clear of unpaid gofer work disguised as “a foot in the door.” A glance at career services’ Web sites confirms that breathless injunctions—”Create your own internship!,” “Enhance your marketability!”—usually trump any mention of relevant employment law. The current approach by many colleges to student internships is at best agnostic, at worst cynical and financially motivated. “There’s much more money coming from these internship credits” than there is going into sustained internship programs for students, says Philip D. Gardner of the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

This raises a number of urgent questions, among them: Is any kind of work experience by definition “educational,” as some dogmatic interpretations of experiential education and situated learning would hold? Should educators help companies save on labor costs, even if it hurts working people and does little for students in the long run? Is the brand name of an employer more important than the experience the company provides? What is the meaning of academic credit when put to such uses, far from the normal checks and balances that apply on campus?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers has found that only 28 percent of colleges associate classroom experience with academic credit for internships, while 25 percent do not require any kind of written assignments, 15 percent do not require any faculty supervision, and 6 percent require nothing at all. Of course, university policies on credit vary widely with respect to internships, study abroad, and coursework at other accredited institutions—no one-size-fits-all solution will do. Yet a disturbing divide is increasingly apparent: elite colleges that jealously guard the value of their credits versus more permissive institutions.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, I argued that colleges should face up to their role in a runaway internship boom that is hurting many students and their families. I’ve since heard from institutions, like the Williams College of Business at Xavier University in Cincinnati, that have taken a principled stance against granting credit for illegal internships; from teachers who arm students with knowledge of their workplace rights; and from students who demand pay or dedicated training for their hard work.

Howard Schneider, dean of the journalism school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, last year told Poynter, the Web site of the journalism organization, that he was questioning the widespread use by newsrooms of unpaid interns. “At what point are we just feeding this beast that continues to use these students as surrogates? At what point do we wind up helping these news organizations defer ever deciding to hire anybody?”

So the perspective of higher education on the value of internships is clearly not a monolithic one. And indeed, the only thing worse than the current malaise would probably be an internship system completely outside the purview of higher education. Academic credit and the involvement of colleges represent powerful levers for changing the way many companies treat young people.

In theory, there’s nothing more well-meaning than an employer providing training and a glimpse of professional life to a student with no work experience. It’s also easy to see why colleges have become trusted internship brokers, seeking to boost their students’ employability and facilitate learning beyond the classroom. These motivating ideals—as well as the desire to ensure a skilled work force—powered the rise of cooperative education more than a century ago. Although the co-op movement has suffered grievously from the withdrawal of federal funds, lack of employer appetite for intensive training, and arguably from the broader shift to a postindustrial economy, we would do well to heed its half-forgotten lessons. Internships may seem like a flexible, cost-effective replacement for co-ops, but the reality is that they simply push the costs onto students and deliver a far-less-rigorous and humane experience. This is not progress.

If academic institutions have a responsibility to level the internship playing field, at the very least for their own students, where should they start? Providing stipends for unpaid internships in public service, although potentially an enlightened move, is not a scalable solution (Smith College’s impressive Praxis program notwithstanding: Every sophomore or junior is eligible for a $2,000 summer internship subsidy.) Changing the way Federal Work-Study funds are used is a feasible option, at least where community organizations are concerned. Other basic steps colleges can take include not publicizing unpaid internships at for-profit companies, limiting the use of internships as graduation requirements, not charging students to work, and restoring standards surrounding academic credit.

But they also must rethink their role in the internship process. Many institutions deal far too meekly with employers, cautious not to offend them and unwilling to speak up for their students. And where is the solid academic research on the effectiveness of internships, either for individuals or for the labor market? Where is the conscience that has driven the living wage and anti-sweatshop movements on so many campuses? Colleges may be trying to serve student and parent demand for internship opportunities, but it’s a demand they’ve done much to create. They should promote alternative paths into the work force—international experience, entrepreneurship, skills training, and job shadowing to name a few—rather than let unpaid office work become the default. There’s still time.

 

Article originally posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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