Sunday, November 08, 2015
Time for colleges to stop charging students to do internships
K.P., a reader from New England, has a daughter attending college. As part of her major, K.P.'s daughter must complete at least one internship during the course of a semester. Neither K.P. nor her daughter minds this requirement. In fact, each believes working for a business might give the daughter valuable insight into the work world that she plans to enter after graduation.
While it concerns K.P. that many of the internship opportunities that are available to her daughter are non-paying positions -- and rightly so, since it's only right for businesses to pay workers for the work they do -- that's not K.P.'s major concern.
K.P. is troubled with the fact that her daughter must take her internship "for credit," effectively paying the university tuition for the privilege of working for free at an approved business. While her daughter will register for the internship and the supervisor at the business will fill out an evaluation on her daughter that it files with the school, there is little in the way of academic requirements.
"Should my daughter really have to pay the university to work for free at a business?" K.P. asks.
The issue of unpaid internships has been a sticky one for years. Lawsuits have been filed over the issue. Arguments fought. It seems only right for companies to pay student workers just as they would regular employees, even if the students are gaining experience on the job.
An argument might be made that fewer internships would be available if pay was required. Perhaps.
But if colleges see value in internships, even unpaid ones, perhaps a way to compensate students would be to not charge them for the credits they're required to sign up for to take the internships.
A handful of colleges do not offer credit for internships. As a result, students are not left paying for the right to work for free.
Other colleges regularly offer students a fixed number of tuition-free credits when they sign up for college activities, such as working on the staff of a college publication. If a free credit toward tuition can be offered for such non-required activities, surely colleges can offer a limited number of free credits toward internship requirements.
Is there anything unethical about businesses asking students to work for free? If the businesses are using interns to sidestep the need to hire paid employees to do work that is essential to running their business, something rotten is happening. In such case, employees lose opportunities to work. And students are being asked to do that work for free. Presumably, these positions are not at charitable organizations to which students are volunteering their time. These are businesses whose goals are to turn a profit. Should they be able to do so on the back of free student labor?
What's worse is expecting students to pay college credits to institutions that may claim to provide oversight for these positions, but that, in reality, do very little that translates directly into the equivalent of the college having to hire a full-time instructor to teach a course.
The right thing is for academic institutions that require students to pay for credits to do internships to re-examine such policies to see if they are truly fair and in the best interest of the students they are charged with providing the best education possible.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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