It feels good to scoop the New York Times.
BY TWO YEARS!!
In March 2008, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education (reprinted below) noting that in my students’ field, journalism, unpaid summer internship have become pretty much essential, and that increasingly, employers have required that students get academic credit for the internships. This means that students (or their parents) have to pay (tuition) for the privilege of providing unpaid labor. The reason for the academic-credit requirement, so far as I was able to tell, was employers’ mistaken belief that this made the practice legal, i.e., not a violation of minimum-wage laws, i.e., not akin to voluntary slavery.
Aside from other problems, this system is very unfavorable to students who have to take a paying job in the summer (waitressing, e.g.), and thus fall behind their more affluent classmates.
Today’s Times has an article (currently the most e-mailed article on nytimes.com) about the exploitation factor in unpaid internships, and suggesting that things may be changing:
The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.
“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.
That’s good news. The only thing better would have been if the Times had given me a shout-out!
Here’s my Chronicle essay, from March 21, 2008:
WILL WORK FOR ACADEMIC CREDIT
“Thanks to a skewed reading of a well-meaning but misguided federal statute, a dozen students of mine will have to needlessly cough up $2,300 each this summer for the privilege of working without pay.
“Everyone knows that internships are important for college students’ eventual success in the job market. It is also the case that in certain areas — politics, entertainment, broadcast, nonprofit institutions, and my field, journalism — unpaid internships are the rule. (The Chronicle, at which some of my students have had the good fortune to work as interns, is one of the laudable exceptions.)
“That’s all well and good, except that it reinforces the divide between “haves” and “have-nots” among undergraduates. The rich kids take the internships and improve their prospects. Their less-well-off peers, who simply can’t afford to, end up busing tables for the summer and graduate with significantly skimpier résumés.
“In an effort to bridge the divide, a flurry of elite colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Penn, Dartmouth, and Swarthmore, have in recent months announced sharp increases in need-based financial aid, replacing loans with grants and making aid available to students whose families are solidly in the middle class. In addition, a number of colleges have started making some stipend or fellowship money available to students who take unpaid internships.
“But those who are helped by any of these measures amount to a small minority of the college population. At my university, the University of Delaware, which if anything is better endowed than most, there is no new influx of money for financial aid and none at all for unpaid internships. The journalism program, on its own, has started accumulating some dollars to help out interns, and last year, for the first time, offered a fairly pitiful $1,500 to one of them. That left about 20 journalism students who worked at internships with zero compensation.
“It gets worse. In the past half-dozen years or so, more and more employers have insisted that students receive academic credit for unpaid internships. At this point, it’s almost universally required. So the intern not only has to give up a paycheck, but also pay tuition for a three-credit summer-session class. On my campus, that amounts to $2,325, as of this summer, for most students. (In-state residents, who make up about 40 percent of the student body, will pay $918 starting this summer.) Needless to say, such a price tag is a deal-breaker for some students and their families. As a result, the divide is widened.
“A few years ago, when the credit requirement started to get popular, I — as a faculty member who had to approve, supervise, and grade the internship-for-credit course — asked a few employers the reason for the requirement. I never got a detailed answer, only vague mentions of lawyers and liability, and, once in a while, a suggestion that students would be “exploited” if they worked without any kind of return on their labor. I would always stifle my snort. After all, I depended on these people to take on my kids.
“Instead, my colleagues and I tried to game the system. For example, if students lived in an area where a public or community college offered an internship or “life experience” course and cheaper tuition, we told them to enroll there and transfer the credits back to Delaware. We also gave them the option of signing up for their credits in the fall semester, even though the internship was in the summer. That way it would be covered under their regular tuition bill, with no need to spring for an extra big-ticket item.
“That particular game is now officially up. Recently word came down from administrators at my university that henceforth, students seeking credit for internships must enroll in the same semester when they do the work.
“That depressing news led me to undertake some actual journalism and look for the real cause of the credit-requirement trend. I got an answer courtesy of an outfit called University of Dreams, which will place you in a summer internship in a glamorous industry of your choice in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, or one of a half-dozen other cities; put you up in a local college dorm; give you breakfast and dinner; and, if you attend four 90-minute seminars with your fellow interns and write a three-page, double-spaced paper on your experience, arrange for you to get one unit of credit from California’s Menlo College. The price for these services ranges from $5,000 to $9,000, and thus the divide becomes a gorge.
“On its Web site, University of Dreams explains why the Menlo College credit is important: “The Minimum Wage Law requires all college students to receive academic credit if they are going to work in a nonpaid internship.”
“As I found when I did some additional checking, the real origin of employers’ credit requirement is an opinion letter that the Department of Labor sends to employers who inquire about the issue. Interestingly, the letter mentions no requirement of any official academic connection with the internship. (The State of California, by contrast, does require that internships “be an essential part of an established course of an accredited school.”) The labor department’s letter casts internships as “training” and says that to be excused from the normal labor laws, including paying workers for their work, a program must satisfy six conditions, notably: “The training is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction”; “The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students”; and “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students.”
“Pretty much every unpaid internship I’m aware of has violated one, two, or all three of those conditions, especially the first (what’s the point of an internship if it’s similar to what you’d do in class?) and third (an intern writing two front-page stories a week would seem pretty advantageous from a newspaper’s point of view). But my research turned up only one company that’s ever been busted. In 1995 the government fined A. Brown-Olmstead Associates, an Atlanta-based public-relations firm, $31,520 because it had billed clients for work done by unpaid interns.
“That, of course, had nothing to do with academic credit or lack of it. Rather, it was a clear instance of gaining “immediate advantage,” along the lines of having a beach-club intern hawk Fudgsicles in the sand and hand over the proceeds at the end of the day. But I can imagine how lawyers for intern-hiring businesses responded to the Brown-Olmstead judgment. Internships are almost never “similar” to what students would learn in school — nor should they be — but lawyers figured out that tying them to an actual college course would help make that argument if the feds ever complained. Managers usually do what lawyers recommend, if only to get them out of the office, and thus their suggestions became policy.
“That still leaves me with the question of how to proceed. One option would be to follow the lead of another college, a staff member of which I spoke to on condition of anonymity. This person said that when a company demands a statement that a student will receive credit for an internship, the college simply sends such a letter, but doesn’t give the credit. No one has complained yet.
“But mendacity in the name of education doesn’t seem ideal. How about a modest amendment to U.S. law, so that it’s clear that college students can choose to accept unpaid internships of any stripe? Some of them will be fooled into signing on for valueless scut work, no doubt. But most of the students I know are savvy enough to tell the winners from the clinkers. And all of them would welcome a slightly smaller tuition bill.”