With the spring semester over, students at USC and nationwide are beginning internship programs across all fields. This is hardly a new development: For years, university career development offices have stressed that students obtain internship experience in some form as a way to remain ahead of the curve in highly competitive job markets. In some cases, schools even require students to participate in internship programs. Suffice to say, internships matter.
Some students have landed paid gigs for the summer. But others — more than one million students, according to estimates from the research firm Intern Bridge — will have to work unpaid jobs.
But the qualifier “unpaid” is misleading. The staggering truth is that college students more often than not pay to work internships because of course credit requirements. The very nature of working for free, along with the range of expenses garnered during this work, means that it makes no sense for students to have to pay for college units to get credit.
In April 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor released a fact sheet for unpaid internships at “for-profit” institutions in an attempt to regulate employers who might take advantage of free labor. The guidelines stress that internships must be given in an educational environment and benefit the intern. Additionally, the intern must not replace a regular employee, not be entitled to a job upon completion of the program and understand he or she will not receive a salary. Lastly, it states that the employer must not receive any immediate benefit from the intern’s work.
If these conditions are met, the intern is no longer entitled to minimum wage or overtime pay, as outlined under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which has been around for the last three-quarters of a century.
That sounds fine. But there is a certain ambiguity in how employers continue to interpret the guidelines, specifically in relation to what constitutes an “educational environment.” To remain in compliance with the federal mandate, many companies have chosen to interpret this to mean students must receive academic credit. In other words, he or she must be registered in an internship course.
This is where the costs pile up, especially for USC students: Registering for a summer class at USC runs $1,420 per unit. Students are, in many cases, indirectly shelling out thousands of dollars for these types of programs.
Granted, the goal for any student is to secure a lucrative, paid internship. But in a sagging economy, those opportunities don’t present themselves nearly enough, and to stay competitive, many students are forced to take on internships in which they are not compensated.
Heck, college costs enough nowadays. Tuition at USC stands at more than $20,000 per semester, and about two-thirds of undergrads borrow money to attend college to eventually face an average debt of $23,330, according to The New York Times. That’s hardly chump change.
The last thing that students need is to be tasked with shelling out even more cash to take internships upon already rising tuition costs. The intent of the federal government’s decision to redefine unpaid internships was so that students wouldn’t be taken advantage of by employers looking to maximize profit.
Instead, it’s made college all the more costly.
Joey Kaufman is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and religion.