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DENVER – Recent federal regulations have raised questions about the legality of many unpaid internships, and have put pressure on employers either to pay interns or to be sure the work is closely tied to academic programs, ideally with credit awarded.

For vocationally oriented programs, this is not a big conflict, as many such programs award credit for internships, and view internships as closely tied to the curriculum.

But what about liberal arts colleges? A study presented here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association suggests resistance to awarding credit for internships. Lauren Valentino, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, focused on the colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and 9 of the 11 institutions cooperated by providing information on policies and a relevant dean for Valentino to interview. (The NESCAC institutions would generally be considered among the elites and more traditional of liberal arts colleges, so the findings here may not reflect other institutions that have been talking more about career issues or starting internship programs.)

At the NESCAC colleges, Valentino said that all nine colleges reported “extreme” pressure from students, parents and employers to award credit for internships, so that the employers could continue to offer non-paying internships. But largely, she found that the colleges are resisting this pressure – although some are trying to “get around” the regulations without giving meaningful credit.

One of the nine colleges flat-out bars credit for internships. Eight others offer “extremely limited” credit, equivalent to one-fourth of the credit for a traditional course, or the credit one would earn for physical education. Further, she found that most of the colleges awarding even that minimal credit were barring it from counting toward major requirements or graduation requirements. “And that begs the question of what kind of credit this is,” she said.

One dean admitted, Valentino said, that the credit was “watered-down credit.”

Why the hesitancy? The deans uniformly cited faculty resistance as the main reason, explaining that professors on their campuses do not believe that off-campus, non-academic work deserves credit.

The interviews also suggested that the deans share those attitudes. Valentino quoted some of the remarks she heard from deans, such as, “We’re a liberal arts college, not a training center.”

Further, the interviews suggested to Valentino that not all deans understand what an internship is. Valentino said that when she asked the deans whether their colleges sponsor internship programs, they would say “sure we do.” But when pressed, they were generally talking about summer research programs with professors, not programs in which students would work in areas that are not part of academe.

In only one area did Valentino find the colleges were trying to link internships to academic programs. She said that “transcript notation,” in which transcripts note that students had internships, is becoming common.  But these notations are separate from credit.

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