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Good Steps Against Unpaid Internships

The New York Times—The Editorial Board

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported last year that nearly half of the internships taken by college students in the class of 2013 were unpaid. Many of these arrangements (often temporary, low-level jobs with dubious educational merit) may violate federal labor guidelines, which say that unpaid internships at for-profit companies must be “for the benefit of the intern” and that the employer may not derive an “immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Yet colleges, through their career sites, frequently end up promoting internships that disregard these guidelines.

Two prominent universities in New York recently announced that they were tightening their policies on unpaid internships. In February, New York University said it would explicitly instruct employers posting on its job site to follow the Labor Department’s guidelines and to indicate that they are in compliance. (The university also clarified that it weeds out obvious noncompliant postings.)

Columbia University already had a similar warning on its career site. Last month, it said it would stop giving out “registration credit” (R credit) to students in internships. Those credits did not count toward a degree, and mostly functioned as a fig leaf for employers, who could pretend that the credit somehow justified not paying for a student’s work.

Columbia’s new policy brings it into line with other Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth that do not give R credits, and ahead of many other universities. In the past few years, exploited interns have started suing their employers, and a high-profile case against Fox Searchlight Pictures was decided last year in the plaintiffs’ favor. But American universities have largely stayed quiet or even defended the practice. On this issue, Columbia and N.Y.U. are setting good examples.