Unpaid internships: Give credit where credit is due

Universities have nothing to do with this, but they still want money

By Luke Peters

Most of us are familiar with the idea of an internship; it’s where someone new to the industry can learn the ropes in a low-risk environment, hopefully gaining valuable relationships and experience along the way. 

As useful as these experiences can be, unpaid internship programs can make these opportunities inaccessible to students, especially those who are financially independent from their families.

Suppose you are a student working at the local Foot Locker as a sales representative, a job that pays between $10 and $12 per hour. The paycheck you receive from this job pays for your food, rent, gas, etc. — all the essentials. 

Now, imagine giving up that only form of income to a university that already charges you for the education you receive to work with a company for no pay.

There’s no reason to assume that a financially responsible adult would choose to work for free rather than for compensation. However, this is the dilemma that many students face when looking to advance their careers.

The irony of it all is captured by an excerpt from Cleveland State University’s Internship Guidelines of the History Department’s section of the website. “Interns become, in effect, employees during the internship. As such, they are subject to any organization policies regarding the conduct of their work.”

So, do none of those “organization policies” include paying their employees? 

These students interview like any other employee, they are given responsibilities like any other employee, and they must uphold the same conduct as any other employee would. Yet, for some odd reason, none of these qualify the student to be paid for the work they do.

A deeper issue surfaces when you consider the costs of interning for university credit. For many internships offered through a university, students can pay to receive university credit for working with an organization related to their field of study.

Other than providing an initial connection with the organization, the university stays pretty uninvolved with the student’s participation in the job. That being said, an internship worth three credit hours costs approximately $1,500 to carry out; that amounts to almost two months of pay for a 20 hour per week, part-time job.

Normally, students pay the costs of tuition because they are receiving some service from the university, such as instruction or use of resources they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. What service is the university providing when the experience and industry knowledge gained isn’t even provided by the university?

Ironically enough, unpaid internships are falling out of style. Many companies and organizations, across a variety of fields, pay their interns in the form of direct monetary compensation and/or tuition reimbursements.

We can even see this trend in the engineering co-ops at Cleveland State. According to Cleveland State’s Washkewicz College of Engineering, all engineering co-ops and internships through the university must be paid. Additionally, there are opportunities for tuition reimbursement for specific majors.

However, the problem is that for many other major programs, if you want recognition of your experience in the form of credit hours, you still have to pay the university. It’s not unheard of for students to refrain from registering their internships and co-ops for university credit because of this.

Employers don’t see internships as valuable because the university said so. Internships are valuable because they increase the industry knowledge for potential employees of companies. Why, then, would there be any reason to register the internships for credit?

Place yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager for a moment. Which person would you rather have work for you: someone familiar with the job responsibilities, who understands the compensation system, monetary or otherwise, associated with their work quality? Or, someone fresh out of nine months of resentment for an organization that not only exploited their labor by lack of compensation but may have also paid their school for it?

It doesn’t take long to solve that riddle. 

Students are already nickeled and dimed to death. The least universities could do is not penalize them for seeking out real-world experience and furthering their career prospects.