Antiquated internship policy requires reform

At issue: Outmoded policies muddle Emerson’s internship program.

Our take: Internship class reforms at ELA should only be the first step.

At the end of last semester, professor Julian Higgins facilitated a meeting between several students who had just finished their term at Emerson Los Angeles and Lori Beth Way, senior adviser for undergraduate education, regarding potential changes to be made to ELA’s internship program. Student complaints included unnecessary busy work, no career counseling, and a lack of workforce preparation. The meeting resulted in a shortening of the word requirement for reflection assignments from 1000 words to 500 words, as well as recognition that the program has room for improvement.

But the reforms shouldn’t stop on the West Coast. Reforming Emerson’s collegewide internship program is long overdue.

In order to earn credit through Emerson for an internship, a student must have earned at least 64 credits. While it’s understandable that the college would want students to some basic knowledge in their discipline before representing themselves and Emerson in a professional environment, the credit requirement is holding students back at best and exposing them to exploitation at worst.

In the competitive fields many Emerson students aspire to work in, it’s expected that graduates will have several internships under their belts. But with industry hubs outside of Boston — like film in LA and magazines in New York — students are often left with only their summers to intern for their dream company. So if students have to be juniors to intern, they have only one summer to make their mark before graduating.

If students do choose to gain professional experience before they become juniors, they may have to take an unpaid internship whose only compensation is a line on a resume. While federal law mandates that work by unpaid interns cannot replace the labor that would be done by entry level workers, many interns can tell you they have done just that, saving their companies hundreds or thousands of dollars.

When students finally reach the credit requirement and are allowed to intern between 16 and 24 hours a week, the cost of a semester’s full-time tuition doesn’t change. A student may, in effect, be taking one fewer class, but they still have to pay the cost of four credits: $4,580. That means that a student interning three full days a week is paying Emerson $190 a week to work for free for another company.

Technically, the student is still taking a class: Emerson’s internship class. What students could learn there — in a “class” that may not even meet in person — cannot compare to what they would learn in a normal academic course. Further, it is hard to imagine how Emerson can justify a price tag equal to other classes when 70 percent of the internship course’s final grade is based on an evaluation by the on-site internship coordinator that oversees the student—not an Emerson employee. And most internship class assignments are busywork, besides a Q&A assignment that is a great entree to networking with a higher-up at the internship.

A university’s support can mean the difference between interning and not, particularly today, when companies are walking on eggshells in the wake of high-profile lawsuits over intern compensation. In this light, Emerson’s internship class can easily seem like a hasty effort to make easy money off students desperate for experience.

The recent debate over the ELA internship program is indicative of a larger conflict between what students want from Emerson and what Emerson wants from its students. While it is understandable to want underclassmen to focus primarily on Emerson courses rather than outside internships, that is, for many students, no longer a realistic goal in the face of current industry demands. Emerson’s role needs to evolve by allowing students to more easily supplement their academic coursework with real-world experience, from day one.

With faculty members at ELA reevaluating their internship requirements, the Boston mothership ought to do the same, beginning with addressing the exorbitant cost of doing internships for credit. Not only should students be allowed to take on internships without reaching junior status, the two-, four-, or eight-credit internship options should all cost far less than even a single full-price course credit. The internship class itself should change its focus and purpose from reflection to networking, to meet the real needs of the students it means to serve. And as competition inevitably increases for the jobs that Emerson students desire most, internship reforms will become all the more necessary if the college hopes to keep up.