How Universities, Not Businesses, are Exploiting Student Interns

Words by Anthony Dominic

From May 20 to Aug. 17, I was not taking any classes at Kent State, nor did I once set foot on campus. I was living and interning in New York state, working 40- to 60-hour weeks and earning less than minimum wage. However, on May 22, the university sent me a bill for $509.

I was charged because I was an intern. As a student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, completing an internship is one of my graduation requirements – to which I have no objection. However, this requirement is built into the curriculum as a one-credit hour “class” – a decision that is anything but arbitrary.

Since all registered interns are technically earning one credit hour, they are billed accordingly. (As an in-state student, my bill was comprised of a $9 legal services fee, a $368 instructional fee, a $71.20 general fee and a $60 College of Communication and Information program fee.) This sort of practice is not exclusive to the journalism school.

For example, physics students are charged for a two-credit hour internship, and fashion students are charged for a three-credit hour internship.

These internships fulfill Kent State’s experiential learning requirement. As outlined in the university’s 2013-2014 academic catalog, the experiential learning requirement “may be fulfilled by a course, a component of a course or a non-credit paid or unpaid experience.” This ranges from research projects, to community service to study abroad opportunities. The decision to charge students for completing internships is entirely up to each school and college.

My internship, while fulfilling only one credit hour, was required to consist of 300 hours of on-the-job work. In contrast, a typical one-credit hour class should consist of approximately 15 hours of in-class work. For student interns, this discrepancy is insulting.

School directors insist these bills for $500, $1,000 or even $1,500 are, in part, an investment in the schools’ internship coordination efforts – meaning the faculty and resources that are intended to help students secure internships. However, I, like so many of my peers, learned about an internship, interviewed for a position, was hired and moved out of state independently. And it wasn’t that I was refused help from my school; I simply felt my school didn’t offer any resources I couldn’t find elsewhere. One of the only resources available to me was a list of internship postings on my school’s website, many of which could be found directly on an employer’s website.

Thor Wasbotten, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, did not disagree that the current internship system places an additional burden on students. He would like to see the one-credit hour requirement for journalism students change to a three-credit hour requirement. If this were to happen, he said students could complete this requirement through one, two or three different internships, as each credit hour would equal 100 hours of work. Even if this change were to take place, there are two problems: Journalism students would be required to pay three times what they’re already paying in order to graduate, and the school would have to ensure that students were not exceeding their allotted on-the-job hours – which could limit internship opportunities. And in regard to credit hours, it still doesn’t explain why 100 hours of of on-the-job work would have the same credit value as 15 hours of in-class work.

The bottom-line: No university should charge a student for completing a paid or unpaid internship. There should be no “class,” no credit hours involved. And universities that do should offer students a serious return on their investment. In the public university system, students and their families depend on this “return.” If a school were to effectively market its students, guarantee paid positions and ensure students weren’t overworked, a bill for $509 may be entirely worth the price.

The number of high-profile lawsuits filed by allegedly exploited interns – such as those filed this summer against Fox Searchlight Pictures and Condé Nast – have prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to rigidly enforced the Fair Labor Standards Act. In order for an unpaid, uncredited internship to be legal, it has to be set up like a summer school – a program entirely for the benefit of the intern. Naturally, this is rarely ever the case.

However, many students are misled into believing it’s advantageous to earn credit for an internship, when so often that very credit is merely a university’s ticket to take more money.

Whether or not administrators and faculty can agree on sparing students more fees, they should have no problem agreeing on transparency. Fees should not be masked as credit hours, and no intern should be surprised by a bill. This is a moral issue, and it ought to be addressed as one.

This story originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.

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