Last February, Marissa Schnitman ’14 assumed she was ahead of the internship game. Before jetting off to Australia for a semester abroad, she secured an unpaid internship with a nonprofit organization for the summer months, which she planned to begin upon her return.
As it turned out, the game was leading Schnitman by leaps and bounds. In mid-June, right before she came home, she contacted the organization to inquire about her work schedule. She was then informed that she would only be allowed to participate in the internship program if she received credit from the University. Suddenly, Schnitman wished she’d made backup plans for her summer.
Schnitman’s concern was not that she would have trouble receiving credit. The University’s Career Center offers .25 credit to students who complete both paid and unpaid internships. Students must submit specific forms to the Career Center at the beginning and end of their internships and ask their supervisors to complete and submit a For-Credit Internship Completion Form. Additionally, student interns must submit a 500-word reflection essay to the Service Learning Director and enter information about their experiences in the Wesleyan Summer Internship Database (WesSID).
Schnitman, who is currently writing a senior thesis about issues surrounding unpaid internships, was more concerned about the financial penalty for receiving credit. The Career Center dictates that students who do not receive need-based financial aid pay seven hundred dollars in tuition for summer internship credit. Schnitman believes that the fee may have been put in place in order to help solve the University’s fiscal issues. Still, she finds the charge unreasonably high, even for students without major financial disadvantages.
“Just because somebody doesn’t qualify for financial aid doesn’t mean that they have seven hundred dollars lying around each time they want an internship,” she said.
Schnitman said she felt trapped by her situation. Although a quarter of a credit would not significantly help her fulfill graduation requirements, she had no choice but to pay the tuition and receive credit in order to be employed as an intern.
Her frustration was heightened by the fact that, in addition to paying the University, she was not compensated by the organization for her summer work.
“I was sort of left with no choice but to pay for my internship, which seemed unreasonable because I already wasn’t getting paid in the first place, and now I was not only not getting paid, but also having to pay to have this internship,” she said.
Schnitman is not alone in her discontent. In April 2010, the United States Department of Labor issued a Fact Sheet clarifying the requirements for unpaid internships based on the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The document lists the circumstances under which interns may work without compensation and notes the differences between educational and productive work. As a result, many employers now require unpaid interns to receive academic credit for their work.
Following the release of the Fact Sheet, the controversy surrounding unpaid internships certainly didn’t wind down. The issue received significant media attention this past summer as a flurry of unpaid interns filed lawsuits against their employers. Before that, though, discontent among unpaid interns had been brewing for a while.
In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that half of graduating students, significantly more than the 17 percent found in a 1992 study, had held internships (both paid and unpaid). One year later, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into the internship programs at several firms. In 2010, just before the publication of the Department of Labor Fact Sheet, The New York Times reported that federal and state labor officials intended to eradicate illegal internships.
Unpaid interns for the movie “Black Swan” Alex Footman ’09 and Eric Glatt ’91 received major news coverage in 2011 when they filed a lawsuit claiming that the production company, Fox Searchlight Pictures, assigned unpaid interns menial tasks, such as taking out trash and making coffee, which legally required payment. According to the lawsuit, the company violated minimum wage and overtime laws by failing to provide its interns with an educational experience, a requirement for exempting interns from monetary compensation.
Ruling in favor of Footman and Glatt, U.S. District Judge H. William Pauley III noted that the two performed the work of paid employees, and as such they should receive minimum wage for their internships.
Pauley’s decision clarified how employers must meet the Fair Labor Standards Act requirements: internship work must benefit the worker, not the employer; it should be part of a formal training program; and it cannot replace a paid employee’s job. Although the Act existed long before Footman’s case, the ruling called into question the validity of long-accepted employment practices and the federal enforcement of those standards.
“[The Fair Labor Standards Act] hadn’t really ever been enforced in an internship case before, which really kind of shocked me because—it was naïve—but I just assumed that since this was such accepted practice, it was legal and aboveboard,” Footman said.
By filing the lawsuit, Footman intended to establish standards of fair treatment for unpaid student interns. But now he worries that the regulations established in the wake of his case have, ironically, made unpaid internships even less fair to students, at least at schools like Wesleyan. Now, unpaid interns are exploited not only by their employers, who do not compensate them for their work, but also by schools that charge them for credit.
“I hope that employers change their behavior and start providing internships that follow the Fair Labor Standards Act guidelines,” Footman said. “I hope that universities would support their students and guide them towards less exploitative internships or at least not charge them for credit. I’m still kind of shocked.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Jonathan Cutler indicated that the University’s current system for providing credit to unpaid interns was initially intended as a temporary solution. A pass/fail course, CSPL493, is listed under the Center for the Study of Public Life. According to Cutler, the model for the course, in which interns enroll to receive a quarter-credit, was created four years ago when one of his students was offered an internship at “The Daily Show.” Toward the end of the academic year, the general counsel at Viacom, the company that owns the show, notified interns that they would need to receive academic credit for their work in order to participate in the internship.
Cutler said that he spoke with representatives of the University about this issue. During that discussion, he suggested that they categorize unpaid internships as summer courses, which are worth a credit and normally cost $2,800 each. Ultimately, a quarter of a credit was settled on so that the fee would not be excessively high. Still, Cutler viewed the arrangement as a temporary solution to a time-sensitive issue. He assumed the University would reevaluate it and design a less costly plan.
“In negotiations at that time or discussions with the University, I think I encouraged that they move to a quarter credit as at least a short-term stopgap measure,” he said. “I was expecting at that time a larger discussion would proceed. This was sort of an emergency.”
CSPL493 was only officially instituted last year, indicating that the University converted its quick fix into a long-term plan without changing any of its standard mechanisms. According to Associate Director for Jobs and Internships Jim Kubat, the quarter-credit model was chosen for its relative affordability. This takes into consideration the fact that few students who apply to receive credit need it in order to graduate.
Additionally, because Wesleyan has no authority over the internship experiences themselves, they may, in fact, only be worth partial credit.
“The University feels that an internship experience may not deserve a full credit, because the quality of the educational experience is primarily out of the University’s control,” Kubat wrote in an email to The Argus.
The CSPL system is also helpful to international students on F-1 student visas. Usually, having an indication on their transcripts that they have received credit for their work allows these students to complete their internships, paid or unpaid, legally.
Many schools, including Swarthmore College and all members of the Ivy League, maintain policies that prohibit students from receiving credit for summer internships. Most are willing to send letters to employers explaining the no-credit policy, thereby allowing students to partake in unpaid internships despite Fair Labor Standards Act regulations.
Other schools have adopted systems similar to Wesleyan’s and now charge students tuition for academic credit. While Wesleyan’s $700 fee is steep, it’s a bargain compared to the whopping $1,393 charged at Muhlenberg College. Oberlin College, by contrast, charges unpaid summer interns just $50 for one credit, which counts for the equivalent of a quarter credit at Wesleyan.
Some students have managed to avoid the high fee. Schnitman spoke of friends who applied to receive credit at local community colleges instead of Wesleyan, where fees tend to be lower and are sometimes not implemented at all. Others opt to receive an audit notation instead of a credit on their transcript, which is free, though this only fills credit requirements for some organizations.
The Department of Labor Fact Sheet and the Wesleyan Career Center website make clear that students who intern at nonprofit organizations are exempt from the requirement to receive credit for their work. Most nonprofits would not be able to afford to pay their interns, let alone maintain financial security if held at legal fault. Curiously, Schnitman was nonetheless required to receive credit in order to accept her internship at a nonprofit.
“So far in my research of the law, it only applies to for-profit companies, and nonprofit foundations are exempt from having to protect themselves against the lawsuits for obvious reasons,” she said. “They aren’t making the sort of money that for-profit companies are making that would make it so unjust for one of those for-profit companies to still not pay interns.”
Senior George Gore’s unpaid internship experiences have been much less bureaucratic. After his freshman year, he interned at a nonprofit service center for underprivileged members of an Illinois community, and last summer he interned at an art gallery and a city program in New York. His employers sometimes mentioned the option to receive credit but never presented it as a requirement. Gore didn’t need any extra credit to fulfill his graduation requirements, so he never seriously looked into CSPL493. In fact, Gore was so uninformed about the option to receive credit that he was unaware of the cost.
“I didn’t know you were supposed to pay,” he said. “I was just completely oblivious to the entire issue. I didn’t pursue it, and I didn’t realize it was something I needed to pursue.”
Some employers are lenient in other ways. The Career Center notes that although many institutions require substantial confirmation that their interns are receiving academic credit, some are simply satisfied with knowing that the students are eligible to receive credit, even if they don’t ultimately pursue that option.
“If this satisfies the employer’s requirements, the Career Center will send a letter to the employer explaining Wesleyan’s credit policy,” reads the Career Center’s website page that outlines its policy for internship credit.
But for those with bosses who are less lenient, the system can feel like a trap. Opting out of unpaid internships altogether is an option, but it’s easier said than done. Rejecting internship opportunities on the basis of ethics or frugality is appealing, but it may not be worth the long-term ramifications. After all, early experiences in a career setting are now highly valued in the increasingly competitive job market.
“Having some kind of practical experience relating to one’s field of interest—which may or may not be defined as an ‘internship’—is very important for landing a position after graduation,” wrote Director of the Wesleyan Career Center Sharon Belden Castonguay in an email to The Argus.
The conflict of interest regarding unpaid internships presents a dilemma to which there is no obvious solution. It doesn’t seem likely that the University will eliminate the charge for credit anytime soon, nor do the chances of major companies paying their interns look promising. According to President Michael Roth, a step in the right direction may be to put more paid internship opportunities on the job market.
“If you’re just Xeroxing for somebody, they should pay you,” Roth said. “I think there are far too many unpaid internships, and that if you’re working for somebody they should pay you. But I am in a distinct minority these days.”
Roth’s view may be uncommon as students continue to fall into a pattern of accepting any internship they can acquire. Because the unpaid internship model has fallen into favor among major companies, the notion of being compensated for work as a college student can seem almost avaricious.
Roth also expressed a vision of participation in unpaid internships as rewarding and educational. He acknowledged that most students don’t apply to receive credit for pragmatic reasons but sees the connection that CSPL493 makes between the University and students’ experiences as significant and beneficial.
“I think all too many times in the past, students who were interning weren’t learning anything,” Roth said. “When they do learn something, it can be a really valuable extension of their University experience. I don’t anticipate people getting lots of credits towards graduation for their internships, but if Wesleyan offering course credit makes the internship more valuable as a learning experience, I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s an even better thing if they get paid for it.”
The University has undoubtedly played something of a positive role in students’ internship experiences. Both of the unpaid internships that Gore had last summer, for example, were Cardinal Internships, part of a program in which Wesleyan parents and alumni provide students with internships. The Career Outlook program gives students the opportunity to shadow University parents and alumni at work during Winter Break. WesSID, an online database, lists internship recommendations and information from University students.
Still, Cutler, who suggested that the Career Center offer student interns a stipend for their work, finds that the University is propagating a mixed message. The aforementioned programs certainly spark interest in new internship opportunities, but the CSPL493 course, and the tuition in particular, likely hinders students from seizing them.
“They just built a whole new Career Resource Center that’s pushing internships,” Cutler said. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to facilitate it and therefore waive the fee. The University is trying to encourage internships, so they’re at odds with their own mission, it seems to me.”