During my first-year student orientation, I was excited to see that Emerson offered academic internship opportunities, including one located in Washington D.C. I eagerly put my name down for their email list and started imagining myself working on Capitol Hill.
After looking into the program a few months later, I realized that participating in it, as well as other academic internship programs, just wasn’t possible for me. If I was recruited through the program instead of being hired on my own, I would likely be placed in an unpaid internship that I would also have to pay for as part of my tuition.
When I got hired for a summer internship a year later, I contemplated enrolling in Emerson’s for-credit internship course to catch up on credits. When I brought it up to my academic advisor, I was told that I would still have to pay for the class, meaning most of the money I would be making as an intern would go towards paying for credits. I decided to opt out of receiving academic credit.
For a standard four-credit internship at Emerson, students have to pay for the course like any other class. This means that it costs $6,408 to receive credit for working, likely more than the company is paying their intern—if they are getting paid at all. Students enrolled in these for-credit courses will be working off campus and using none of the college’s resources as part of their position as an intern, which begs the question: Why do universities charge students for internship credits?
It’s not much different at other schools either. I have yet to see a college offer their internship credits at no cost to the student. The University of Massachusetts Boston even approves credit for internships of up to 51 hours a week, equating to 18 credit hours that students can pay (a full course load) for the semester. Even worse, some institutions, like California Polytechnic State University and Seton Hall University require students to pursue an internship as part of their degree completion.
This means students are paying an ungodly amount of money, and sometimes working full-time hours, to gain experience in their desired field. These internship programs are presented in a way that, at first, appears helpful for prospective students to progress in both their degree and future career. To me, they feel more like exploitive labor, especially those that are unpaid.
No one should have to pay to work, especially college students who are already paying for their respective schools. This also eliminates the possibility of any low-income student potentially getting credit for their internship, meaning they either have to take on an internship along with their already-full course load, or only apply for summer internship opportunities. When you factor in expenses like transportation and food, students are basically losing money by choosing to work.
In 2016, students at Seton Hall petitioned for their university to either drop or amend the requirement that charges them for their internship credits, calling the policy “financially unjust and discriminatory.”
Thankfully, Emerson does not require an internship fulfillment to obtain a degree, but for many programs, the expectation is there. Students enrolled in the Emerson Los Angeles program are expected to secure a for-credit internship as part of their semester in LA.
The Washington Center, the academic credit and internship placement program I was initially interested in, advertises an internship matching process where students are matched with companies and offered internship positions throughout the D.C. area. This seemed like an incredible opportunity until I came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t be doing me a favor by helping me land a job; I would be benefiting them by working at one of their partnered companies for free.
I would receive little to no compensation for my work as an intern in a job that I would then have to later pay for on my tuition bill. Realistically, programs like these just aren’t financially feasible. It would set me back thousands of dollars financially, as well as any other student who cannot afford to justify paying to work.
So many internships are already unpaid, and the earnings from the few that do pay should go to the students, not their university. Colleges should focus on altering their internship course costs or partnering with internship placement organizations that employ tuition reimbursement so students don’t have to worry about falling behind.
Emerson allows students to receive up to four credits at no cost to them for their involvement in campus extracurricular activities, so why are internships different? Universities should consider applying the same standards to outside opportunities, especially when internships are becoming more valuable in order to land a job following graduation. A NACE Student Survey reported that 60 percent of undergraduates complete an internship and 70 percent of employers make full-time job offers to former interns.
These are not typical classes; these are jobs. Just because we are college students does not mean that our work shouldn’t be treated as such. These academic credit internships are a win-win situation for both universities and employers. Universities get to use these programs to attract applicants, and companies get free labor from undergraduate recruits who are anxious to get their foot in the door. The only one who loses are the students. But it’s permittible, as long as we’re gaining experience, right?