Colleges Draw Criticism for Their Role in Fostering Unpaid Internships

The Chronicle of Higher Education Casey McDermott
June 24, 2013

The debate over unpaid internships has largely focused on the employers that offer them. But as interns are taking companies to court, advocates are taking colleges to task, arguing that they are complicit in the exploitation of students.

“The unfortunate reality is that colleges and universities have very much abetted this practice of having young people working for free,” said Juno Turner, a lawyer representing a group of former interns who are suing Fox Searchlight Pictures for alleged violations of federal and state labor laws.

A common interpretation of such laws is that academic credit can substitute for compensation and qualify interns as legally unpaid trainees, even at for-profit businesses. Advertisements for such internships often specify: “Candidates must be able to receive academic credit.” And colleges with varying oversight of the experiences and expectations of students (to write, say, a paper reflecting on their internship) often grant that credit.

This month, however, a federal judge determined that two former Fox Searchlight interns in the case had worked like paid employees and that the claims of another former Fox Searchlight intern could proceed as a class action. “Receipt of academic credit is of little moment,” wrote Judge William H. Pauley III of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. “A university’s decision to grant academic credit is not a determination that an unpaid internship” is legally defensible, he said.

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As the case has yet to be resolved, it’s hard to know how it will affect internships nationally. Meanwhile, some observers say, by awarding the credit employers think they need or by allowing them to recruit on campuses, colleges wield a lot of control.

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Colleges don’t necessarily see themselves as propping up an unfair system. On many campuses, faculty and staff members find educational value in internships and design courses to accompany them, to draw out students’ “experiential learning.” The more robust programs craft learning contracts with employers and conduct site visits.

Some efforts, though, may be reactive, given the prevalence of internships, their increasing importance to students’ careers, and employers’ conditions.

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Outside pressures aside, colleges aren’t above doing the math on tuition they receive when students earn academic credit for off-campus internships, which may involve no classroom instruction and require the oversight of just a low-level adviser, said Philip D. Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. “It raises a heck of a lot of money.”

Only for the Wealthy?

In addition to questions about academic credit, some critics think colleges shouldn’t even advertise unpaid internships to students.

Institutions wouldn’t post job ads from employers that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, said Mikey Franklin, a co-founder of the group Fair Pay Campaign. Unpaid internships are also discriminatory, said Mr. Franklin, whose group is working to eliminate all such positions, including those at nonprofit organizations and government agencies, where unpaid interns can legally be classified as volunteers.

A campus career center that posts any unpaid internship is saying, “Poor people need not apply. People without a wealthy family need not apply,” Mr. Franklin said.

Later this summer, the Fair Pay Campaign will try to spark a national grass-roots movement against unpaid internships by providing support for students’ activism on the issue. The group also hopes to develop an accreditation system to recognize employers that treat interns well.

At New York University, two students, Christina Isnardi and Rachel Whitbeck, are petitioning to get their career center to screen internship postings more aggressively, deleting unpaid positions at for-profit companies that don’t comply with guidelines the U.S. Department of Labor released in 2010.

The women have collected more than 1,000 signatures so far, though their petition hasn’t been an easy sell to all students, Ms. Isnardi said. Many, especially in the arts, willingly take wageless work for the career boost it may provide.

The university is open to more screening but hasn’t made a decision on the petition, said Diana Gruverman, a director in the career center. Staff members there already weed out some internships and make sure the companies offering them are legitimate, she said, but they don’t evaluate the positions’ legality. “The onus is on the employer,” she said, “to confirm they comply with federal guidelines.            

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College Grants and Stipends

To help students financially, many colleges offer grants or stipends to subsidize unpaid internships. And to avoid charging tuition for the credit, and thereby seeming to financially benefit from the system, some institutions have developed zero-credit transcript notations for internships an official mark on a student’s record that’s enough to satisfy most employers, without charging tuition.

Decisions on unpaid internships need not be institutional. Miriam Posner, coordinator of the digital-humanities program at the University of California at Los Angeles, took it upon herself to stop passing along positions to students she oversees. It’s her way of protecting the value of their talent, especially given rising student debt, she said.

“If students want to go out and seek these unpaid internships, I’m not going to prevent them,” Ms. Posner said. “But I didn’t want to be a party to it.”

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