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Credit for Internships: Is It Due?

January 30, 2013 |
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JOB listings on Craigslist these days are full of companies looking for young people willing to work for no salary. In New York, internships are available at businesses ranging from advertising agencies in midtown to a “cake studio” in Brooklyn. They want people who are “positive” and “energetic.” And one more thing: they want college students. As one agency looking for an unpaid videographer put it, “PLEASE NOTE: You must be in school and receive school credit in order to join us.”
 
Why would companies care about college credit? Because employers, students and colleges have all been caught in the complex web of credentialing, job training and financial self-interest that increasingly characterizes American higher education.
 
Interning has become the norm: a survey of the class of 2012 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that a majority had graduated with an internship or cooperative education experience. (Co-ops are traditionally tightly integrated into academic programs, run full time and can add a year to attaining a bachelor’s degree; internships tend to be relatively short, one-off stints.)
 
The rise of college internships reflects tectonic shifts in the structure of the American economy. Even as globalization helped eliminate large numbers of well-paying blue-collar jobs, new industries evolved, but with jobs requiring a college degree. In 1971, American colleges and universities granted about 155,000 bachelor’s degrees in the social sciences and history, compared with some 115,000 in business. By 2011, the number of social science and history degrees had increased to only about 177,000, though the total number of graduates had more than doubled. Degrees in business, by contrast, swelled to more than 365,000, making it by far the most popular undergraduate major.
 
Even bastions of the humanities are feeling the pressure. A recent study from Albion College and Michigan State University reported that of 212 institutions identified as a liberal arts college in 1990, only 130 still meet that definition today. Most had moved toward offering more business and professional courses.
 
This presents a challenge for colleges. The best way to learn history involves reading books and attending history classes led by historians. The best way to learn business often involves working in a business. But while tuition is paid in exchange for credit for history classes, that’s not the case with jobs in businesses. Thus, the academic internship, in which colleges get tuition to not teach students and businesses pay little or nothing for students’ work. Tuition for for-credit internships is free money. Instead of receiving no wages, students are, in effect, receiving a negative wage. They are paying for the privilege of working. (At the New America Foundation, where I work, it’s up to interns whether to seek credit; most are unpaid. At The New York Times Company, interns must be compensated or receive credit; some academic interns also receive a stipend.)
 
In 2010, the Department of Labor became so concerned about exploitation of interns that it clarified the rules for using them without compensation. “The more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience,” the department said, “the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience (this often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit).” There were other criteria as well: unpaid internships are illegal if the student is doing work that has “immediate advantage” for the business.
 
Companies seem to have seized on the educational credit provision as a way of minimizing their legal liability. It’s a legitimate concern. Former interns have filed class-action lawsuits against the Fox Entertainment Group and the Hearst Corporation demanding back pay. In December, Charlie Rose and his production company settled a similar suit for $250,000.
 
The government’s rules put colleges in a bind. A group of prominent college leaders quickly wrote a letter to the secretary of labor protesting regulation of internships, assuring they took “great pains to ensure that students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education.”
 
Almost half of all internships provide credit, but elite schools, whose credits are valuable currency, are sometimes reluctant to award them for internships. Yale, for example, has a stated policy of not awarding credit for internships to undergraduates. Columbia’s policy says it gives unpaid interns “registration credits,” which don’t count toward graduation and as such aren’t really credits at all. While Harvard undergraduates can’t get credit for internships alone, they can make them part of credit-granting independent study.
 
Ivy League interns are, presumably, in demand. For less prestigious institutions, denying credit could jeopardize internships, which provide a crucial bridge to the workplace. Getting tuition while students learn on the job is a good deal for colleges financially, but it also creates new oversight responsibilities that, research suggests, many colleges are ignoring.
 
Intern Bridge, a recruiting and consulting company, surveyed 8,939 undergraduates at 234 colleges who had been interns. Of those getting credit, only 15 percent reported that an adviser or faculty member visited their work site; 41 percent were not required to submit documentation about the experience; and 33 percent did not receive a formal supervisor evaluation. For noncredit internships, oversight was usually an afterthought: a majority of colleges require no documentation or evaluation of any kind.
 
This should not be surprising. Because contemporary notions of academic freedom grant professors wide latitude to teach what, and how, they like, most colleges haven’t developed systems to objectively evaluate student learning in individual courses. They can, however, rely on the academic culture of the institution and the general professionalism that goes along with scholarly credentials. With internships, no such built-in safeguards exist. Some colleges and universities require interns getting credit to write an essay and complete coursework related to the internship, while others rely only on a supervisor evaluation — or, as the Intern Bridge research indicates, nothing at all.
 
Supervisors, moreover, aren’t educators, and receive no training in evaluating learning. Internships sometimes come with a grade, a chunk of which is based on a one- to two-page form filled out by a company supervisor — evaluating attributes like dependability and punctuality on a five-point scale (check a box, from “outstanding” to “unacceptable”) and a few general characterizations of the quality of the intern’s work. This is a far cry from the rigorous examinations and thoroughly graded essays that characterize the best college courses.
 
The college internship as we know it today has evolved into an awkward marriage between organizations with very different missions. Both sides are offering something of legitimate value — from the workplace, experience and connections; from colleges, credits that lead to degrees — even as they also help their bottom lines. Students, meanwhile, are faced with a system whose rules vary widely among different colleges, or even departments within colleges, as they try to reach a goal that can be all too elusive: a good job that pays a good wage.