This just in: Many can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars to do unpaid labor!

By Ana Sophia Garcia-Cubas Assemat

It is the summer of 2022 and I’ve just gotten an internship—unpaid—at a literary review magazine. While an unpaid internship was by no means my best-case scenario, it is better than the internship-less alternative. And I’ll get academic credit for it anyway. 

It’s a good internship: a well-known publication within the publishing industry, remote, with flexible hours. Hell, I could probably work full-time somewhere else and make it work. Most importantly, I have a productive summer to put on my resume. The sky is blue and the birds are singing and my Mexican mother tells me she’s proud of me over the phone.

The singing birds are promptly shot down when I visit the Career Development Center and they try to foot me a $6,536 bill to complete a 4-credit internship.

$6,536.

Low-income students already spend so much of our mental and physical energy trying to navigate Emerson College. When we painstakingly manage to take on the hellish experience that is applying to internships and succeed, we are faced with yet another barrier to overcome.

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Baby boomers love to justify unpaid internships by saying “you get academic credit for it so there is some form of compensation.” What they don’t tell you is that you have to pay tuition for the damn academic credit. Full rate tuition at that. 

And the cherry on top: it is actually illegal to do an unpaid internship without receiving academic credit for it.  The entire justification for not paying an intern is that the intern is benefiting more from the experience than the employer will. Since this standard is very vague, the Department of Labor created a “primary beneficiary test” all employers have to pass to ensure their unpaid internship program is legal. The third standard for a legal, unpaid internship is the “extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.”

It’s not like you’ll get arrested for doing an unpaid internship without receiving credit. Employers would receive the most heat for carrying out illegal unpaid internships, which means whether you care about breaking the law matters less than whether your employer does. 

In my case, the organization I worked for stated that getting academic credit was a requirement for me to participate in their internship program, so I couldn’t just do it without credit. Bummer. 

I understand the usual transaction between Emerson College and a student is that the student pays the college and the college provides a service. 

Now, explain to me where the college is providing a service by making me drop over $6,000 so I can legally get exploited somewhere else. 

One could argue the 4-credit course Emerson makes you take is a workshop—and there is some coursework attached to it—so it’s not like you’re paying for nothing. I simply wonder whether the workshop and a couple of page-long reflections are worth $6,000. $6,536, to be exact. 

Now let’s look at the solutions the CDC gave me when I told them I couldn’t afford the 4-credit internship.

The first resource they pointed me towards was the Emerson Enhancement Fund, which is essentially a fund you can apply for if you want to carry out a project you can’t afford that would benefit your academic and professional development. Research projects, study abroad expenses, and unpaid internships are examples of what this fund can be used for. 

That sounds like the perfect solution to the problem, right? The only caveat is you need to line up the opportunity before you apply to the fund. So, you need to be already hired for the internship or accepted to the abroad program, etc. That can’t possibly be that much of an issue, right?

According to the Emerson College website, “funding for Summer and Fall term projects should be applied for in the Spring semester and funding for Spring term projects should be applied for in the Fall semester.” The deadline to apply for the spring semester is January 18 and the deadline for the fall is April 5. 

So, if you want to do an internship in the summer, you need to have been offered the job no later than January 18. 

Summer internships don’t even start until May or June. Applications don’t even open until February or March, with some of the least competitive ones not opening until April or May.

Who on Earth has their summer internship lined up five months in advance? The company hasn’t even posted the goddamn job opening at that point. The intern is barely a glint in the company’s eyes.

The CDC also told me I could receive financial aid for the summer. Knowing how financial aid works at Emerson, I knew I’d be lucky to get a grant and the package would inevitably be about 70% loans—and it definitely would not cover the full $6,536 price tag. Financial aid did not solve the issue of having to pay money to do unpaid labor.

Finally, we arrived at a solution.

The good news is there’s currently a band-aid on this gushing bullet wound. The community development experience is a non-tuition, 1-credit course that can be used to circumvent the legal issues associated with unpaid internships. It can only be used if you’re interning with a non-profit organization, which I was. But not everyone is so lucky. 

You don’t get to have an internship on your transcript, nor do you get to have four or eight academic credits—even if you’re doing work that qualifies for four or eight academic credits.

The only difference between a “community development experience” and an internship at Emerson College is how much you’re willing to pay.

It feels a bit like having your career held for ransom, doesn’t it? Pay up or miss out on an incredibly valuable experience to pad your resume, which will help build your professional future. And we all know how vital experience is when it comes to getting a foot into the uber-competitive industries most of us plan on joining. 

If you’re a low-income student here at Emerson (or really just someone not capable of dropping six bands on a technicality), you are probably very familiar with the feeling that you’re being held economically hostage. 

Resident Assistants who can’t afford to stop being Resident Assistants. Honors students who can’t afford to have their GPA drop or they lose their scholarship. Students who didn’t get enough federal aid had to take out shitty private loans. 

The only ways to make this college anything close to viable come at the expense of low-income students’ time, energy, and mental health.

It is unfair that Emerson College operates under the notion that every one of its students has a trust fund waiting for them back home, or worse, assumes low-income students are happy and willing to take on untenable amounts of debt to fill the college’s deep, deep pockets. 

Chances are you didn’t know you’d need to pay tuition to get credit for an internship. It comes as a surprise to most people, but it does even more so to first-generation students. 

Again and again, Emerson College proves it’s an institution whose first thought is always with its privileged students—the ones who can look at a $6,536 price tag without breaking out in a cold sweat. It’s clear the college does not care how many low-income students are bulldozed while they’re busy drafting up a new tuition hike.