‘Tis the season when I hear my college students start to talk, or rather to worry over, their plans for the summer. At the top of the list is the need to get a job (not easy at all these days) or an internship. As Ross Perlin, a researcher at the Himalayan Languages Project and the author of a forthcoming book about internships, writes in a recent New York Times op-ed, the student had best beware: Too often, internships are unpaid and are just a means for a for-profit business to have a few eager-to-please 20-somethings standing by to work for free.
Perlin cites statistics from the College Employment Research Institute according to which three-quarters of college students will work in at least one internship before graduation. Between one-third and half will not be paid according to a study by the research firm Intern Bridge. Furthermore, unpaid interns are not protected by laws that prohibit racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
It’s not just the businesses who dangle internships in front of students who need to be held in account. Students take unpaid internships, hopeful of filling out their resumés and thinking that, maybe if they’re lucky, the folks at the internship might consider them for a job. But universities also can be said to aid and abet the process.
Last year, 13 college presidents wrote a letter to the Labor Department in which they “in essence” said they would “look the other way” regarding government regulation of internships. Universities have a reason, Perlin contends, as internships can provide a way for them to beef up their programs and say that these offer student “real-world experience,” often in a manner that costs the university little:
Far from resisting the exploitation of their students, colleges have made academic credit a commodity. Just look at Menlo College, a business-focused college in northern California, which sold credits to a business called Dream Careers. Menlo grossed $50,000 from the arrangement in 2008, while Dream Careers sold Menlo-accredited internships for as much as $9,500.
To meet the credit requirement of their employers, some interns have essentially had to pay to work for free: shelling out $2,700 to the University of Pennsylvania in the case of an intern at NBC Universal and $1,600 to New York University by an intern at “The Daily Show,” to cite two examples from news reports.
Charging students tuition to work in unpaid positions might be justifiable in some cases — if the college plays a central role in securing the internship and making it a substantive academic experience. But more often, internships are a cheap way for universities to provide credit — cheaper than paying for faculty members, classrooms and equipment.
I’ve seen the binders full of ‘internship opportunities’ at my college’s career center. Students leaf through them looking for opportunities, unaware that, as Perlin writes, “a survey of more than 700 colleges by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 95 percent allowed the posting of unpaid internships in campus career centers and on college Web sites.” In addition, only 30 percent of those colleges required that students get academic credit for those unpaid internships: 70 percent were “willing to overlook potential violations of labor law” and pretty much give academic credit for internships, whatever a student actually did while holding one.
Perlin calls for an increase instead in cooperative education which involves “tightly integrated classroom time and paid work experience.” I quite agree that this would be an improvement for many internships, which are not only unregulated but minimally supervised. Getting faculty to work closely with businesses, non-profits and others who wish to offer internships, with a view to developing a solid, cooperative education curricula, will take time and require willingness from both parties. But what about non-profits that could really offer a student valuable experience and opportunities, but simply lack funds to pay for an intern? Should internships only be something that corporations and for-profits can offer?
Are universities, and students, putting too much weight on internships?
Photo of 'rapid fire interviews matching companies and students for summer internships' by Samuel Mann.