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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Azalea Annie said...

I'm a registered nurse. That means I had college classes that were prerequisites to entering the nursing program (English, math, history, psychology,sociology, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, etc.). You complete one to two years of these courses, apply to nursing school, and if your grades and attitude and history meet the requirements, you begin the deeper education of a nurse.

After your first semester of nursing (pre-clinical), you actually go to a hospital! You take care of a patient! Two ways to look at this clinical component: unpaid work or learning opportunities. Of course, there's a real nurse who is in charge of that patient: she works for and is paid by the hospital, and volunteers to supervise the work the student nurse is doing. She (or he) went through the same learning process during nursing school. The nursing school instructors (RN's with master's or doctoral degrees) continue to follow up on your clinical practice, as one of them goes to the hospital with you and your fellow students in that rotation. So the student nurse is training with and supervised by two nurses: an RN (who may have an AS or BS or MS) and a professor who has an MS or PhD.

Medical school is much the same. Complete the prerequisites and hope you are accepted into med school. The prerequisites give you a BA or BS, by the way. When/if you are accepted, you spend 5 years in med school, with the first year in pre-clinical (classroom) courses. Then you have 4 years of clinical education (rotating through different wards of a teaching hospital, where you work under the supervision of physicians for no-to-low wages. In the last year of grad school/med school, the med student is a resident, and completion means you have earned the MD or DO. Once you are an intern, you work for low wages for 24 hours or more, sleeping when you can, eating when you can. But you are already trained for taking care of patients. Your training has been done by MD's.

Once you are an MD, you might want to work in a specialty. If so, you can apply for a residency in your chosen specialty: 3 years for some, 5 years for others, and 7 years for a few of the specialties. There are fellowships after these programs, with more classroom and clinical training.

Each nurse recognizes that s/he is learning from the nurses who are supervising the work. Each medical student realizes the same thing. All realize they are learning from the patients as well.

So......your daughter feels she is making a real contribution to the business where she is an intern. She doesn't feel she is in a learning environment. Perhaps she is making a real contribution; perhaps she is learning from the work.

Perhaps she should let her school know she would consider only a paid internship. Perhaps she should apply at a local McDonald's. One of my cousins and her spouse own several McD's. One has a BS (nursing), the other has a BS and MS (computer science, marketing). Both say actually working in their businesses has been a real education: planning, customer service, cooking, serving, cleaning. Logistics, nutrition, sociology, biology, and a myriad of other learning fields.

I suspect your daughter might be over-estimating her value. But in the service field, she would truly get an education in the work world. Wait staff, counter staff, cleaning staff all serve society well.......and all get an an education in what people are really like. Whether the service is providing/serving food, cleaning restaurants / hotel rooms / airports / train stations / jails , there are real opportunities to learn human nature.

As for the school waiving tuition, good luck with that.

Rick Kenney said...

As an academic program chair who administers all of the required internships in some areas of our multidisciplinary department, I concur with The Right Thing author, Jeffrey Seglin. We have a substantial syllabus for a three-hour-credit internship: agreements to be reviewed and signed that stipulate several points of a work contract, a resume review before and after, a weekly work log, a final reflections essay, and an evaluation form to be signed by the site supervisor and then reviewed before I assign a final grade. All that is minimal work and certainly not demanding of full tuition. At most, a fee akin to what prospective students pay for, essentially, processing and paperwork, would be in order.
As for the author's other points about using unpaid labor to replace paid employees, the U.s. Department of Labor is very clear on this. In practice, the vast majority of internship programs in my field are helping to break federal law.