The debate over unpaid internships is complex. Students want the experience, but not all can afford it, especially when they’re required to pay for the (sometimes mandatory) corresponding academic credit.
Colleges want to graduate seasoned workers who've had myriad internship opportunities, but can’t always tell which internships are legitimate and don’t want to scare off potential employers by cracking down on what they offer.
Well-meaning businesses want productive interns, but many say they can’t afford to pay them anymore.
Ross Perlin, a veteran of the unpaid internship and a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project, in China, decided three years ago to investigate some of the issues that arise when these conflicting interests collide. What he found can be inferred through the title of his new book – Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy  (Verso).
“I find the internships lacking on a number of levels,” Perlin said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “Internships have become this key gateway into the white collar work force … but at the same time, access has become drastically unequal.” Over the last few decades, thanks to globalization, an economy in flux and over-credentialing, internships have become increasingly important for college graduates. But shoddy practices, little regulation and negligible or nonexistent wages have made it difficult for low-income students to compete with their more fortunate peers, he found.
“I do think that schools have to look at what they’re doing in terms of promoting unpaid, unstructured opportunities at for-profit companies that seem to be illegal under U.S. labor law,” Perlin said. “It’s something that we really need to pay attention to, and is a contributor at the deepest level to widening inequality.”
Perlin himself had a “pretty humdrum experience” at an unpaid internship five years ago in London. While it was at a nonprofit and thus an exception to some of the issues being debated, Perlin said he left knowing that he’d done it just to get some kind of experience on his résumé.
Perlin’s experience illustrates the crux of the debate: colleges pressure students to take internships because the work makes them more marketable once they graduate, so institutions and students -- at least, those who can afford it -- jump at opportunities that may not actually benefit them. But many colleges are scared to crack down on unpaid internships because they don’t want to limit students’ options.
In a recent New York Times op-ed , Perlin cited research from the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University and the research firm Intern Bridge, which found that 3/4 of the 10 million U.S. four-year college students will have internships before graduating, and between a third and half of them will be unpaid. He also noted that laws prohibiting racial discrimination and sexual harassment do not apply to unpaid interns.
A year ago, after the U.S. Labor Department released guidelines clarifying the requirements that private businesses must meet under federal law when hiring unpaid interns, 13 college presidents protested  that the government risked doing more harm than good. The guidelines, which apply a six-part test from the Fair Labor Standards Act, state that such interns must benefit from the job; work under close supervision; not displace regular employees; not provide an “immediate advantage” for the employer and possibly even impede the employer; not necessarily be entitled to a post-internship job; and understand, as should the employer, that he or she is not entitled to wages.
The presidents, among them Mark G. Yudof of the University of California and John Sexton of New York University, stressed the growing importance of the real-world experience that internships provide. “The Department’s public statements could significantly erode employers’ willingness to provide valuable and sought-after opportunities for American college students,” they wrote.
“While we share your concerns about the potential for exploitation, our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education. We constantly monitor and reassess placements based on student feedback. We urge great caution in changing an approach to learning that is viewed as a huge success by educators, employers, and students alike, and we respectfully request that the Department of Labor reconsider undertaking the regulation of internships.”
(The vice president of the Economic Policy Institute sent the department a scathing response  to the presidents' letter, accusing the colleges of asking the department to “look the other way and condone violations of the law, when they ought to be working closely with you to ensure that their students are protected by regulations that are vigorously enforced.”)
Indeed, the regulations appear to be affecting internship providers. According to an annual recruiting trends report  out of the College Employment Research Institute, 60 percent of the more than 4,500 employers surveyed said they would hire interns during 2010-11. But employers also reported having to decrease or eliminate opportunities in light of the labor guidelines because they couldn’t afford to pay interns. They also cited as a challenge “connections with academic institutions for finding the right students and scheduling the experience.”
The extent to which colleges can regulate internships -- before, during and after an internship period -- is debatable. Perlin said that at most colleges, he’s not seeing the kind of quality monitoring and evaluation that is necessary to ensure students are getting the experience they were promised. “I don’t think many schools have the capacity to go through each one,” he said. “Those things, they do happen but they’re not very widespread, from what I’ve learned.”
Xavier University is one institution that has faculty coordinators do site visits, and requires evaluations from supervisors and students for every internship for which a student receives academic credit. It also has a policy that prohibits postings on its databases for unpaid internships at for-profit companies. While the labor guidelines were the impetus for Xavier’s regulation, student welfare was also a factor, said Jonika Moore-Diggs, Xavier’s assistant director for experiential education and mentoring.
“We decided to take a stricter stance on the interpretation of the [Labor Department] fact sheet,” Moore-Diggs said, adding that Xavier was also “thinking about students and how this would have an effect on students and wanting to protect students.”
Other institutions have been discussing this issue for a while now. As unpaid internships in the corporate sector have become more common, Duke University for half a dozen years has been trying to figure out how to support its students so they can afford to accomplish what they need to during college to have successful careers, its officials say.
“Just having them come here and be able to pay for the basic Duke education may not be enough. We have to ask, once they’re here, what are they feeling that they can’t do?” said Stephen Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke. “We are working hard to try to make sure that students from the broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds all can avail themselves equally to opportunities at Duke or associated with being a Duke student. And that’s hard to do.”
But the students want more – in a recent editorial  in The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, they asked Duke and the University of North Carolina System to lobby the state’s general assembly to ban unpaid internships. (Some high-level politicians in Britain are seeking a similar crackdown .) They also want the university to review internship providers and highlight those that pay adequately, and more actively advertise its financial aid for unpaid student interns. “Finally,” the editorial board wrote, “the University could make an unpaid internship stipend part of student financial aid packages to mitigate the disadvantages of less wealthy students.”
Nowicki estimates that about 90 percent of Duke’s students in a given summer will do some form of unpaid intern work, whether at a corporation, in a medical school lab or abroad in civic engagement. For those students, as well as others whose internships will pay less than $1,500, the university provides a number of scholarships. “We don’t want students to feel -- or be -- exploited. A student working in a lab in the summer -- in an NIH-funded lab -- should be paid. It’s not that much money,” Nowicki said. “The fact that they’re not being paid, to me, doesn’t just mean that they’re being exploited. I would turn it around and say, I want to make sure it’s not just the rich kids who can take advantage of those experiences.”
The social inequity of unpaid internships is what really bothers Victor Sanchez, vice president of the United States Student Association. “This is important for obtaining a job,” Sanchez said. “It really kind of underscores the barriers that folks from low-income [backgrounds] and communities of color have historically faced in achieving these opportunities that have allowed them equal opportunity toward a successful life.”
Sanchez wants to see more action from all sides: the federal government, employers and colleges. The labor guidelines were a start, but the department should actually be regulating these business, which in turn need to understand the burden they’re placing on students by not paying them, Sanchez said. And college career centers must follow suit and serve as advocates for the students, he said, speaking up about this issue and addressing it, as Duke and Xavier have. “I think it’s been eerily under the radar,” Sanchez said. “The spotlight hasn’t been shone on it.”
After the Labor Department reiterated the federal guidelines last year, the Public Relations Society of America decided to examine the ethical, rather than the legal, aspects of the situation. The organization wound up issuing a professional standards advisory  calling on public relations employers to -- wait for it -- pay their interns. (If that’s not an option, the PRSA urges employers to at least ensure the internship complies with legal labor requirements.)
But Francis C. McDonald, a member of the PRSA board of ethics and professional standards, and interim assistant dean at Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, said the most important thing is that everyone be on the same page when it comes to responsibilities and compensation.
“I’m not trying to say that we should band together and try to force the industry on paying internships. What I’m saying is that in light of benefits, advantages, disadvantages on both sides of the unpaid or paid position,” McDonald said, “we just want to make sure that the student and the employer have the conversation in terms of what are the expectations of the student intern-employee, as well as the expectations of the employer.”
So what can the colleges do?
Many things, Perlin says, some of which are already being done at some institutions. Identifying and highlighting models that pay students and provide good, structured training -- and working with them and encouraging them to take on more interns -- is a start.
Building relationships with local employers and alumni can help career centers achieve that end. “I think quality is still more important than quantity. To some extent, part of the problem is just the push for internships, even if they are illegal, unpaid, poorly structured opportunities,” Perlin said. “I think in general right now, schools are being too meek, essentially, with employers, and they’re sort of being grateful for any opportunity, whatever it is, without looking at it carefully. There should be a responsibility to ensure a basic level of legality, ethics and equality.”