Internships Have Value, Whether or Not Students Are Paid

Running on fumes, the homeless, single teen mother arrived at the office of a social-service agency hungry, tired, broke, and pregnant again. She needed help. Clipboard in hand, toddler in tow, she and the receptionist sat in a small waiting room and went over her situation. The story that emerged was horrific. She had been abused—in every way—by parents and foster parents; she spent years on the street selling first drugs, then her body; she had dated a number of men who had eventually tossed her and her baby aside. The receptionist sat with the damp 2-year-old on her lap, swallowed a big lump in her throat, put her pencil down, and said a counselor would be in to see the young woman shortly. The receptionist then excused herself, and closed the door behind her.

That receptionist was not just a receptionist, however—she was also a college student studying sociology. In addition to hundreds of pages of reading, as well as hours of theoretical discussions and lectures over the course of the semester, she worked as an unpaid intern and received perhaps the best education of her life.

Academic internships are three-way partnerships among an institution of higher education, the intern­ship site, and the student. They have an irreplaceable role in the liberal arts by providing hands-on learning opportunities, allowing students to collaborate closely with faculty, and strengthening ties between the college and the community.

However, in April 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor expressed concern about the potential for organizations to circumvent fair-wage laws and other worker protections by calling unpaid workers “interns,” rather than employees. Those concerns provide an opportunity for colleges to clarify the key differences between academic internships and employment and to evaluate internship practices to determine what constitutes fair compensation.

Colleges and the Labor Department part ways when it comes to understanding what internships are and how they should be compensated. That confusion is most clearly manifested in the first of the six criteria set forth in the Labor Department’s memo clarifying the government’s position under the Fair Labor Standards Act: To qualify as a legitimately unpaid internship, the position must provide instruction that “is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.”

However, the whole point of an internship from colleges’ point of view is to provide students with experiences that are not like what students get in the classroom. Rather, internships should provide opportunities to confirm or confound what is found in textbooks and set forth in lectures, and in so doing help meet the institution’s learning goals. Of course, if an internship does not meet the learning goals as set forth in the institution’s mission statement, it is something other than an internship—it’s a job—and should be compensated as such. So if an internship serves the learning goals of the college, the college should pay up in the form of academic credit, but if an internship provides no clear academic connection, paying out in the form of wages is necessary.

Internships are negotiated partnerships, so it is helpful to consider the cost-benefit analysis from multiple perspectives. Benefits to interns may include academic credit, salaries, benefits, practice in disciplinary skills, material for disciplinary reflection, exposure to the habits of professional practice, increased self-awareness, the opportunity to exercise civic responsibility, expansion of social and professional networks, and résumé building. Benefits to the field site may include the student’s labor, a strengthening of town-gown social capital, access to expertise from students and their faculty sponsors, recruitment opportunities, and publicity. Faculty, who are accustomed to awarding academic credit as compensation for work in their classrooms, can rest assured that students’ work is being supervised, and understand that data analysis, interpretations of findings, and presentations are excellent ways to connect classroom learning with on-site learning in an internship. Finally, colleges can benefit by demonstrating a commitment to engaged learning that benefits the local community, thus strengthening town-gown relations. Most important, the institution is able to further its mission of educating its students.

There are costs involved in internships, too. For instance, many students cannot afford the loss of income if they take an unpaid internship. Further, if interns are not considered employees by their field sites, they may not be covered under OSHA, workers’ compensation, and other workplace safeguards, so all parties need to ask questions and make informed decisions regarding those safeguards. Finally, students risk finding themselves over- or underwhelmed with the work expectations or cultural realities at their sites. However, an otherwise uninspiring experience can become a learning experience when viewed through an academic lens. It is the task of the college to provide that lens through intentional shaping and assessment of internship learning.

While it is possible that businesses and other organizations may be motivated to accept interns as cheap labor or as a way to recruit new talent, they are also aware of the considerable costs involved in training and supervising interns. Perhaps this is the reason that even with the recent economic downturn, a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey in 2010 found little evidence that unpaid internships are on the rise. Internship sites weigh the costs against the benefits; it makes sense for colleges and students to do the same.

It is likely that the demand for internships will continue to grow. In a 2010 survey report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 73 percent of employers stated the desire for higher education to put more emphasis on “the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through intern­ships and other hands-on experiences.” Employers and graduate schools examine transcripts and résumés for evidence of experi­ence beyond the classroom, and prospective students seek out colleges and universities that offer such valuable opportunities.

At our institution, Beloit College, our mission statement includes the goals of fostering “public contribution in a diverse society” and “the integration of knowledge with experience,” while “equipping our students to approach the complex problems of the world ethically and thoughtfully.” Internships fit into our mission by enabling students to apply their knowledge outside the classroom walls and put theory into practice. Internships help us to advance our mission: preparing students to lead lives marked by high achievement and a contribution to the public good.

Five years ago, we were aware of the increasing student demand for internships but were uncertain as to how these internships should be conceptualized and compensated. Today, we firmly believe in the value of intern­ships as opportunities to put our liberal-arts education into practice. We are attempting to connect more and more internships to the academic program of the college.

When a student walks across the commencement stage and receives a diploma, can we say confidently that her experience was complete? In the case of our intern at the social-services agency, we believe that she has tested her knowledge in the fires of experi­ence and honed it through practice. Carefully conceived, academically informed internships provide that kind of added value—a good return on the invest­ment of the students’ energy, intelligence, and time, whether or not they are paid.

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