Midway through a day at my internship, standing in line at a taco shop with a list of orders in my hand, my mind started to wander to an old PBS show I used to watch as a kid. Set in the midst of the American Revolution, a young man works as an apprentice in Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and is provided lodging and meals in return — Ben’s a good guy, after all. But back in my 2017 reality, I juggled two credit cards, attempting to explain to the cashier that all orders but one were to be put on the company Visa. Later that day, I took an $8 Uber to the Metro station to get home.
Fortunately, my internship didn’t ask for proof of academic credit, so I was able to avoid the additional $3,466 tuition it would cost to overload on course units at USC — though it would have fulfilled a requirement for my major. Many employers, however, expect interns to receive academic credit.F or this to happen, USC policy requires that students enroll in the internship class and pay tuition for the opportunity to get necessary job experience — an extra cost that is an impossible barrier for many.
Sharonda Laticia Harris-Marshall, who graduated from USC in 2008 with a degree in film and entertainment, saw her career suffer as a result.
“I couldn’t afford to intern in college,” Harris-Marshall told me. “Not only did I have to work two work-study jobs, but I also had to miss a year of school due to finances.”
Once she graduated, she found that most companies required previous internships. “I was usually offered an ‘internship’ instead of the paying job I was applying for,” she said. “I did end up reading scripts for two years for a company, but I wasn’t paid for it.”
The academic credit requirement is put in place to assure that the internship is a valid educational experience, but a concern is that companies can employ this as justification not to pay their interns. The U.S. Department of Labor stipulates that in order for an internship to be exempt from minimum wage laws, the employer must not derive “immediate benefit” from the work of the intern. The national conversation on the legality and fairness of unpaid internships is raging on, but the role that universities play in the process is one that must be examined.
USC’s course catalog offers 23 undergraduate internship classes through different schools, and each set a specific internship policy. The funds from the class tuition go directly to the schools, says Lauren Opgenorth, USC Career Center’s associate director of internships and experiential education.
“Some other universities come up with other alternatives such as having courses included with the cost of tuition,” Opgenorth said. “There are other different ways to do it, but it has to be something that is university-endorsed. This is the way USC manages it, and so our solution to it was, ‘Alright, we’re going to come up with scholarships.’ We know that it can’t touch everyone, but at least it makes a little bit of a mark.”
USC offers 15 scholarships through the Career Center every summer in an attempt to increase accessibility. The Dream Dollars program funds undergraduate students who secure unpaid internships with nonprofits or government organizations and the First Generation Scholars Program supports those who are the first in their family to attend college. Each scholarship provides $1,500 to $2,000 to be used at the discretion of the recipient for the expenses of unpaid internships such as travel, rent or tuition. Opgenorth wishes more were possible.
It’s ultimately up to the companies to decide whether or not to pay their interns, but universities that charge on top of this create an uneven playing field for students who are at an economic disadvantage. Universities such as Harvard and Columbia have found that the answer is to stop giving credit for internships. Columbia’s website explains that while internships are valuable experiences, “We expect companies to appropriately compensate students for work performed during internships.”
Though it might initially appear to limit opportunities, the move might pay off for students in the long run. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students who previously held paid internships with private, for-profit companies received the highest job offer rate at 72.2 percent. Of those with unpaid internships, just 43.9 percent received offers, compared to 36.5 percent for those who had no internship at all. Another option is to follow Georgia Tech’s lead and allow students to audit the internship class tuition-free.
USC might do well to look to these leaders in the fight toward fairness in employment opportunities. The University’s current tuition requirement for the internship class is a “negative wage” and a system by which USC is complicit in creating unequal opportunities. It stacks privilege on top of privilege for those who can afford it, and its effects carry over into the post-college lives and careers of all students, reinforcing barriers that USC has worked hard to eliminate in the admissions process and in building a diverse student population.
Annalise Pasztors a junior majoring in film and television production and anthropology. “Trojan Talk” is a guest column that typically runs every other week.