Internships for credit are a scam.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 8 2006 12:41 PM

Biting the Hand That Doesn't Feed Me

Internships for college credit are a scam.

Minnie Mouse might just be an intern. Click image to expand.
Minnie Mouse might just be an intern

On your next summer trip to Disneyland, take another look at the person in the mouse costume: He or she might be a college student. Disneyland now offers amusement park "summer internships," the Los Angeles Times reported last month. Interns play "front-line roles"—operating the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, dispensing colorful slush drinks, and hawking Disney schlock. A similar program has been operating at Orlando's Walt Disney World since 2000.

While you ponder the academic merits of spending a summer dressed up like Minnie, give Disney credit for compensating the students for their labor, at more than the minimum wage, as well as asking them to get course credit. In other fields, by contrast, college credit without pay is becoming the norm. According to an April 2006 survey from Vault.com, 84 percent of college students complete an internship before graduation and 64 percent of those students reported being paid. However, the majority of internships in the fields of politics and journalism are typically unpaid. Using the listings in the 2005 edition of The Internship Bible, I calculated that 52 percent of magazine internships, 54 percent of politics and public-policy internships, 62 percent of TV internships, and 71 percent of radio internships are unpaid. (Newspapers are the exception to the media rule, with only 19 percent of the listed positions going unpaid.) Washington, D.C., where I have lived and studied for the last four years, is ground zero for unpaid summer interns, but they also dot the country.

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Why are employers so cheap? Because they can be. If they can afford to work for free, students jump at the opportunity to stock their résumés in hope of bettering their future job prospects. In theory, federal law should protect them from undue exploitation. In practice, it usually doesn't. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which established safeguards for workers and created a federal minimum wage, outlines six conditions under which an intern is considered a "trainee" and therefore does not have to be paid. According to the labor lawyer I consulted, the two most important rules are that an intern cannot do the same work as a regular employee, and that the employer must not obtain "immediate advantage from the activities of the student." This means unpaid internships that consist mostly of photocopying and clerical work are illegal. The intern is subbing in for a regular employee, and the employer is getting "immediate advantage" from her work. But interns generally don't report their employers to the Labor Department for the weeks they spend at the copy machine. They're too grateful.

Instead of money, many employers pay students in a form of low-value scrip: college credits. Federal law does not require this swap of credit for unpaid work (though at least one state, California, does). Nor does requiring students to receive college credit exempt employers from the provisions of FLSA. Yet around the country, credit is employers' substitute of choice for wages. Perhaps companies and organizations tacitly recognize that students should receive something. And in the unlikely event that the Department of Labor does come knocking, internships for credit might appear less exploitative than plain unpaid ones.

Most colleges play the game. Employers, in essence, make them. Often students can't get an internship unless their school promises to award them credit. From the point of view of the colleges, internships for credit can be irksome but also profitable. To help students fulfill employers' credit requirements, many schools arrange tutorials or independent study courses. Professors often have to teach these courses for no additional compensation, also becoming victims of the unpaid internship. Some schools, however, come out ahead by charging students extra for this summer credit, as Anya Kamenetz pointed out in a New York Times op-ed last month (sorry, subscription required). At Bucknell University, for example, a student must pay from $286 to $1,074 to receive credit for an unpaid summer internship.

A few schools take a harder route, by coming up with money when employers won't. Wellesley College provides stipends of $3,000 to almost 200 students a year who locate unpaid summer internships. Such programs show that a college or university understands the importance of internships and wants to ensure that students aren't boxed out for financial reasons. Many colleges require students who receive financial aid to contribute thousands of dollars of summer earnings to their tuition. The college-stipend option is a helpful fix, but it's probably realistic only for a relatively small number of well-endowed schools.

Confessions of an internship junkie: I had three as a student at Georgetown (I graduated in May). Two were unpaid, and one of these was for Slate last spring. (The magazine'ssummer internship is paid, but its school-year internships are not.) The Washington Post Co., Slate's parent company, requires that its internships be part of an "educational experience," asking for proof of course credit or academic sponsorship. The obvious way to go was Georgetown's journalism internship seminar. But I had a scheduling conflict, so I had to get creative. After my request for an independent study with a journalism professor was denied, I signed up for a one-credit "Internship in Business" class, because, hey, media is a business, right? I never met the professor because I missed the course's only meeting, which was scheduled during another, more important, class. I got credit by turning in a short "reflection paper" on my internship during finals week.

Slate was great (honest!), but I'd have much preferred a paycheck to the course credit. When taken seriously by employer and intern, internships can be illuminating and fulfilling, as Slate's David Plotz has argued. But fulfillment won't put money in your pocket. The credit I got for my internship was one of 19 that I accumulated above my school's required number. And the credits are worthless for a lot of students: Because of the rise of Advanced Placement exams, savvy overachieving freshmen (the same ones who tend to chase after internships) enter college with more credit hours than any previous generation.

By refusing to pay interns, employers lose out on the talent of all the students who can't afford to work for free—and take from those students the advantage in future job searches that internships confer. In the end, spending the summer in a polyester mouse suit, for pay, starts to look pretty good.

Sonia Smith is an associate editor at Texas Monthly.