The Great American Internship Swindle

Article excerpt

Byline: Jean Chatzky

Colleges often require students to work unpaid internships--and pay for the credits themselves. How to stop the insanity.

The cost of college is going up--again--but not in the way you think. Sure, tuition at both public and private colleges and universities is hitting record levels across the country. But then there's the matter of paid internships. Not the ones that pay you--the ones that, one way or another, you end up paying for yourself.

Here's the deal. Employers like to see internships on the resume. Three quarters of those surveyed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities said they want students to obtain real-world know-how "through internships and other hands-on experiences." Colleges and universities are listening. According to research firm InternBridge.com, 60 percent of students say internships are now mandatory for graduation at their schools. The result: more than half the class of 2011 had at least one internship, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The high demand for internships in this gloomy economy ends up translating into lots of free labor for companies. Nearly half the 2011 grads were not paid for their work. At not-for-profits, that's OK (at least in the eyes of the law). But when it comes to for-profit companies, it's an issue. The Department of Labor has six conditions that must be met for unpaid internships at for-profit companies to be legal. The internship has to benefit the intern (not the company), for one thing. The intern can't displace a regular employee, for another. The biggie, however, is that the internship must be "similar to training ... given in an educational environment." That's been interpreted to mean unpaid internships at for-profit companies are legit as long as students receive academic credit.

But to get those credits, in more than 70 percent of cases, according to InternBridge, you'll generally have to pay your university for them--often substantially. At Georgetown University, the cost per credit hour is $1,705. At William & Mary, it's $286 for in-state students, $985 for out-of-staters. Considering that a single course is usually three or four credit hours, that's a hefty chunk of change to work for free. And that doesn't count the cost of finding housing and transportation in the city where your internship is based. "If you have to contribute to your family's income, it's just not economical," says Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation. …