The unpaid internship credit crisis

    Illustration by Gus Wezerek / North by Northwestern.

    LanaBirbrair [4:35 PM]: So, you know how some internships require you to be able to get academic credit? Medill has fake forms for that sort of thing, right?

    KayleighRoberts [4:36 PM]: Yeah, I’m almost positive.

    This conversation occurred on March 17, 16 days before the New York Times published the article on unpaid internships that stirred up national debate on the subject. Still, my response was automatic. Sitting in my New York City sublet on my journalism residency, internships were certainly on my mind, but I hadn’t given the subject much thought. As a journalism major who transferred to Medill from the School of Communication (SoC), I had been aware of these so-called “fake” credits for four years.

    The reasons for such credits, specifically the legal issues surrounding unpaid internships, were also on my radar, but I operated under the assumption that academic credit for internships was something like the electoral college — widely accepted as necessary, but often met with confusion when examined closely.

    It’s no wonder that the policies for obtaining academic credit for unpaid internships are the source of confusion for many students.

    Across Northwestern’s campus, in all schools and for all majors, there exists an inconsistent array of bureaucratic policies and procedures when it comes to obtaining credit for unpaid internships that aren’t organized or required by the university. Students enrolled in academic credit programs for internships are subject to a variety of experiences, from structured curricula with intense university oversight to a bare minimum of correspondence between the internship coordinator and the student’s school.

    So you want to work for free?

    LanaBirbrair [4:37 PM]: You don’t actually have to pay for that credit, do you?

    KayleighRoberts [4:38 PM]: No, that’s why it’s like a fraction of a credit or something. If it were a full credit, they’d have to apply it to your transcripts and then they’d want money for it.

    LanaBirbrair [4:39 PM]: Of course they would.

    Contrary to my initial belief, not all schools at Northwestern offer a fraction of a credit for unpaid internships. Furthermore, not all schools offer a credit that can be taken free of charge. In fact, the ways in which Northwestern’s six undergraduate schools handle unpaid internships are as varied as the curricula they teach. Credits for unpaid internships range from zero value formalities to classroom courses worth full credits toward graduation, but the availability and cost of these programs varies widely from school to school at Northwestern. Attempting to find a method to this madness, though, is a futile quest.

    Gonzalez earned zero credit for his internship. Glor earned a quarter of a credit. Brooks is set to earn four credits for hers.

    Rachel Garson, assistant director of internship services at University Career Services, says she would probably be the best person to talk to about the consistency of internship credits, but even she doesn’t feel comfortable addressing some facets of the issue. Because University Career Services is housed under Student Affairs, representatives like Garson have little clout when it comes to internship credits.

    “We can educate students about who to reach out to and what that program looks like, but that’s the extent of the advising that we do related to academic credit,” Garson says. “It would be a conversation I think we’d love to be involved in, but as a non-academic part of the university, we would probably need to be invited into that conversation.”

    Constructing a clear understanding of academic credits for unpaid internships at Northwestern, therefore, requires knowledge of not one, but six separate systems and institutions. And with so many different programs and policies regarding unpaid internships, student experiences vary widely.

    When Medill senior Chris Gonzalez interned with an NBC affiliate in Miami, he needed to be able to earn academic credit. He received a registration number, but little explanation about the process for obtaining credit.

    When Communication junior Andrew Glor interned with National Geographic Television, he was also required to receive academic credit for his work experience. Glor applied for academic credit through SoC and was told that he had to work for his credit. “I had to do like two journal entry type things and at one point interview one of the people who was there and do a report on them. And at the end, I had to write a reflection,” he says.

    Bienen junior Tara Brooks will hold two marketing and public relations internships this summer — one with Chicago Chocolate Tours and the other with the Grant Park Music Festival. When Brooks mentioned her internships to her advisor, Brooks says she was simply told she’d receive credits for them and the process seemed very informal.

    Gonzalez earned zero credit for his internship. Glor earned a quarter of a credit. Brooks is set to earn four credits for hers.

    At first glance, the inconsistencies are maddening. Upon closer inspection, the policies begin to seem almost arbitrary and entirely contradictory. Kate Neal, director of External Programs, Internships and Career Services (EPICS) at SoC explains that, in creating the SoC’s 0.25 credit option for students, she worked closely with the registrar to create the absolute minimum credit for the course while still complying with the requirements imposed by companies hosting interns.

    “For some companies, they require credit, so it’s not like we’re mandating that,” Neal says. “The company is. And you know, credit, by definition, is not zero, so it’s like us meeting the company’s requirement.”

    In Fisk Hall, which houses Medill Career Services, however, the situation is entirely different. Jim O’Brien, director of career services at Medill, says the only requirement for the school’s “no credit” credit is a form completed by the employer and an exit interview between the employer and intern.

    Though this form represents the extent of Medill’s oversight for interns receiving credit through JOUR 388, O’Brien says Medill is limited by a lack of time and manpower. He insists that, despite criticisms, the course does appear as a pass/fail grade on students’ transcripts and therefore, has academic bearing.

    “The credits don’t accumulate toward [a student’s total credits], but it is on the transcript and it is a pass/fail grade,” O’Brien explains. “A lot of people kind of poo-poo that, but that’s the only way that we could justify having the course, is to make sure that it has a an academic outcome.”

    Students earning full credits for internships are typically held to a higher academic standard during the experiences, Garson says.

    “There should be big discrepancy between the student receiving 0.25 units and the student receiving three units for an internship,” she says. “…For a student who’s earning 0.25 units, the expectation of doing a daily diary and dialoguing with peers and doing research and reading on a daily basis, may not quite match the number of credits being earned.”

    Linda Garton, assistant dean for admissions and student affairs at the Bienen School of Music, explains that Bienen students receiving academic credit for internships are required to keep a daily journal, write a paper reflecting on their experiences and to submit a letter from their supervisor confirming the experience. The workload Bienen students are intended to complete while interning reflects the amount of credit earned, but advisors don’t always communicate this to students.

    Brooks, who has already started her internship with Chicago Chocolate Tours, reports a much different experience.

    “I think at the conclusion of the summer I’ll write a paper or something detailing what I’ve done, but that’s about it,” she explains. “Other than that it’s very independent study. I’m certainly not in contact with my advisor weekly.”

    Glor says he understands how the SoC’s 0.25 credit program works, but not the logic behind it.

    “It wasn’t like backwards or anything, it was just like, ‘it’s so stupid that I have to do this,’” he says. “That I have to pay for my unpaid internships and, as far as I could tell, the school wasn’t putting forth any effort. It was my summer vacation; I didn’t want to be dealing with the school,” Glor says.

    “But I do appreciate that the School of Comm made it easy and gave the option to do one fourth of a credit and so I didn’t have to pay for a full credit,” he adds.

    Necessary evils

    As convoluted and inconsistent as Northwestern’s myriad of internship credit programs are, something must be said about the administrations’ efforts to simplify the process for students. Right or wrong, academic credit options are designed with what each school believes is best for the students in mind.

    Helen Oloroso, director of the Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Education Program (Co-op) in McCormick says that, while she encourages participation in the school’s highly structured Co-op program, her department discourages students from accepting unpaid positions and does not post those opportunities on its career services website. Though manufacturing companies rarely advertise unpaid positions, Oloroso says it has come up in the financial sector.

    “We could have a company that wants to offer students what they call the equivalent of a Harvard executive-level course,” she explains. “They say, ‘we’re not going to pay you, but the experience is so rich that you should be getting academic credit for it.’ The problem with that is now the student is out twice — they’re not being paid and they’re paying summer school tuition.”

    As much as internship coordinators might have students’ best interests in mind when creating the credits available to them, miscommunication and misunderstanding still mar some of the policies.

    Though McCormick students are discouraged from accepting unpaid internships, they are able to receive credit for them through the Chicago Field Studies (CFS) program, the same program in which Weinberg students enroll to receive internship credit. CFS offers programs that carry between 0.25 to four credits, allowing students to tailor the experience, at least somewhat, to meet their individual needs.

    SoC also offers a range of 0.25 to four credits for internship experiences. Students who enroll in one to four credits must participate in a weekly class, but are also invited to special alumni and networking events in the city in which they’re interning.

    In an effort to alleviate the financial strain on students participating in unpaid internships (the full credits carry with them full course tuition charges), Neal worked to create the 0.25 credit as an affordable alternative that would still satisfy employers’ demand for university credit. In addition to being less costly than the full credit course, the 0.25 credit is free to any student receiving financial aid.

    The Medill “zero credit” may not advance students toward graduation, but like the SoC 0.25 credit, the policy generally leaves students satisfied.

    When Gonzalez applied for the credit for his internship with NBC 6 Miami, he says the credit wasn’t explained to him, but that the process was intuitive enough to require no explanation.

    “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “Discouraging Medill from offering the credit gives into norms, but on the other hand, I’m glad Medill made it so easy.”

    Not all schools see the issue as double-edged. Take Bates College, for example, where academic credit for unpaid internships is not available to students except in rare programs overseen by the university and required for graduation (similar to Medill’s Journalism Residency and SESP’s Practicum). The policy is strict and sometimes unpopular, but Lynne Lewis, chair of the economics department at Bates College, believes it is in the students’ best interest.

    “I think [students at Bates] respect the policy, and I really believe that other schools have sort of caved to the pressure,” she says. “We’re just not willing to send that kind of message to our students. Their first experience in the business world is how to skirt a labor law? So until the law changes, we’re just not willing to play that game.”

    Karen Allen, assistant director of the Chicago Field Studies program, says she and the career collaboration group — an organization made up of representatives from career services offices and internship programs across campus — are working to increase consistency across programs. According to Allen, the issue is hotly debated among educators and she will be bringing it up with the Northwestern provost in the near future.

    As much as internship coordinators might have students’ best interests in mind when creating the credits available to them, miscommunication and misunderstanding still mar some of the policies.

    What’s legal?

    LanaBirbrair [4:35 PM]: So, you know how some internships require you to be able to get academic credit? Medill has fake forms for that sort of thing, right?

    KayleighRoberts [4:36 PM]: Yeah, I’m almost positive.

    LanaBirbrair [4:37 PM]: Oh, lovely. You don’t actually have to pay for that credit, do you?

    KayleighRoberts [4:38 PM]: No, that’s why it’s like a fraction of a credit or something. If it were a full credit, they’d have to apply it to your transcripts and then they’d want money for it.

    LanaBirbrair [4:39 PM]: Of course they would.

    KayleighRoberts [4:40 PM]: Basically, legally, you can't work for no compensation as an intern and companies can get around that by compensating with academic credit. Universities like their students to get big internships, but they don't want to give you actual credit toward graduation if you're not paying tuition, so it seems like a big dog and pony show for the sake of nothing, really.

    Soon after this conversation, the Times published its article and suddenly, knowing how to obtain academic credit for internships wasn’t enough. Now, with the legal side of the equation thrust into the foreground, the nature of work completed at the internship and colleges’ role in ensuring compliance with the law is just as important.

    Compliance with the law means passing the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s six-factor test, which is meant to determine if an intern qualifies as a “trainee,” and is therefore exempt from employee status under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The trainee test is based on a 1947 Supreme Court decision (Walling v. Portland Terminal Co.) regarding prospective railroad yard brakemen.

    Archaic basis aside, the test gets at a fundamental distinction that is relevant to the modern intern: The intern should benefit more from the experience than the employer.

    “They’re hiring an intern because there’s work that needs to be done. [Interns] are learning, but they should receive more than a smile for the work they’re doing.” – Brittany Jewel McPherson

    “The employer is to net no immediate advantage from the work of the student,” explains Kent Sezer, a Chicago attorney who specializes in labor and employment law. “On occasion, the employer’s operations may be impeded because they have to spend time going over the intern’s work and explaining what they did right, what they did wrong, that sort of thing and it’s actually probably easier for the employer to do it himself or herself.”

    On its face, the law seems to limit the pool of potential internships to only the most altruistic of employers: those who are willing to take a hit in productivity for the sake of mentoring students.

    In practice, of course, this does not reflect the experiences most unpaid interns have.

    Communication senior Brittany Jewel McPherson has had both paid and unpaid internships, but says her work experiences were similar at each. At her unpaid internships, she says, she worked alongside paid interns doing the same tasks. Though she says her internships were valuable in the humility they instilled in her (a value she claims is vital to anyone hoping to break into the film industry), she thinks most interns should be paid for the work they do.

    “I do think there are a lot of companies that rip people off by not paying them,” she explains. “They’re hiring an intern because there’s work that needs to be done. [Interns] are learning, but they should receive more than a smile for the work they’re doing.”

    Gonzalez says paying interns results in benefits for the company by creating a sense of responsibility in student workers. He spent last summer in the Disney internship program, working in PR and communications and said the $18 an hour — plus paid intern excursions and events — provided motivation to work harder.

    For that reason, Gonzalez says he thinks unpaid internships should be illegal.

    Brittany Jewel McPherson outside one of her internship’s offices. Photo courtesy of McPherson.

    “You feel like you want to work more and be more a part of the company,” he says. “You know you’re not being taken for granted in any way. Being paid makes you more motivated.”

    Glor didn’t take issue with his lack of a paycheck, but he says he was surprised to learn that, even at a large corporation like National Geographic Television, not all unpaid interns were earning the academic credit the company said it required.

    “I don’t think it made any difference whatsoever if I was getting credit or not,” Glor says. “I learned once I was there that there were people working there who weren’t getting credit. Some people were not paying for their unpaid internship — not the majority, but some people and I was surprised to find that out. The academic credit thing can just be there for show.”

    Lewis says it’s this variety in on-the-job experiences — and, in many cases, lawbreaking — that factored most heavily in Bates’ decision not to offer academic credit for internships.

    “We don’t believe in, first of all, breaking the law, and teaching our students a lesson about ethics right off the bat, that if they want to get around the law they can,” she says. “We don’t really understand why companies are trying to get out of paying interns $7.50 an hour, and we don’t know what we’re offering credit for. That’s the biggest issue; we have no idea. We can’t keep track of what students are doing and we can’t possibly manage it.”

    And management of unpaid interns is certainly an issue. Though academic credit helps an employer establish legality on his/her end, it’s not required, by law. However, when employers require that credit in order to take on an intern, they essentially shift some of the burden for maintaining an academic experience to the university.

    In April 2010, following the interest generated by the Times article, the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division released Fact Sheet #71 regarding “Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act.” The document states, “in general, the more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, 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).”

    The question, therefore, when discussing the role of colleges and universities in the unpaid internship debate is one of oversight. While oversight is easy to ensure in a university-sponsored program like Journalism Residency or Practicum or in structured courses like CFS, it becomes more difficult when dealing with fractional or zero credits. Because of budget restrictions, these programs are, unfortunately and often unavoidably, afforded less oversight.

    What’s an intern to do?

    When Lana asked me if she could fill out “fake forms” to receive academic credit for her unpaid internship, I verified the fact objectively, with no strong opinion as to its implications. She could have just as easily had asked me, “Hey, was Thomas Jefferson the third president?” to which I would have answered yes with as little concern for how life would be different, better or worse, if Aaron Burr had won that election as I had for if life at Northwestern would be better or worse if internship credits were handled differently. In fact, my first instinct was to continue to explain the system objectively, from the standpoint of its legality. Only after delving deep into the issue did questions of right and wrong present themselves.

    Is Northwestern’s system right? Wrong? It’s hard to call it “right” — the loopholes and confusing double standards are numerous and glaring. But flawed as Northwestern’s system is, these problems are not malicious. Are Northwestern’s schools “wrong” for wanting to make working for no pay a little less miserable by cutting down on the requirements on their end? Of course not; most of the people working in career services position on campus are the very definition of well-intentioned. The fault lies in the inconsistent experiences Northwestern students are receiving and the lack of clear standards for which experiences are worthy of academic credit.

    Ultimately, students are often caught in the middle of two flawed systems, forced to make the best of a situation characterized by bureaucracy and miscommunication. On one side, employers, hands tied by a law that wasn’t made with their specific situation in mind, require credit not for the students’ benefit, but for their own legal protection. On the other, universities, despite a vested interest in helping students build their resumes and skill sets, are often unable or unwilling to devote the resources necessary to ensure consistent academic experiences for students seeking credit for unpaid internships.

    So where does that leave the intern? Unfortunately, expected to engage in a precarious dance, shuffling deftly between three distinct roles. They are compliance officers, jumping through hoops to make sure their experiences can qualify, at least on the surface, as legal for their employers. They are reduced to grade school students, submitting perfunctory assignments to satisfy the academic credit (or fraction of a credit) they are receiving. Finally, as much as the law may be intended to ensure otherwise, realistically, they are employees, exhausting themselves with full or part time work.

    As much as the law may be intended to ensure otherwise, realistically, [interns] are employees, exhausting themselves with full or part time work.

    Some colleges, like Bates, are fighting back by refusing to offer credits for unpaid internships. At Northwestern, the consensus among career services and internship programming representatives appears to be that, as long as there is a demand from students to participate in these opportunities, they will do what they can to make the experiences as meaningful as possible, without imposing unnecessary fees and obstacles for the students. According to students, that demand isn’t going away any time soon.

    “Companies want free labor through interns — that’s why they do internships,” Glor says. “But the intern wants to be interning as much as the company wants the labor, so it works.”

    Full disclosure: Lana Birbrair was previously an editor for North by Northwestern.


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