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New York University Is Taking Steps To Protect Students From Shady Internships

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NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
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After pressure from students, New York University's career center has implemented a number of measures to improve screening of the internship listings it features online.

The NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development now requires employers indicate that unpaid internships meet Labor Department guidelines before posting them on CareerNet, the school's online jobs site. The Wasserman Center's website also offers students a link to the Labor Department's website ­­­and a guide to help students identify potentially fraudulent job postings. Additionally, the site provides a comprehensive directory of internship coordinators across NYU departments.

The career center declined to comment on the changes.

NYU junior Christina Isnardi began pressuring the career center last year with a petition demanding that the center "remove postings of illegal, exploitative unpaid internships." The political science and film production double major says she was inspired to start the campaign after working a string of exploitative internships – and watching her friends get shut out of unpaid opportunities they couldn't afford. The career center didn't help: Isnardi says after responding to a posting on CareerNet, she ended up at an unpaid internship where she had to do the work of a full-time employee, for free.

"I wasn't getting paid, and it was pretty illegitimate," Isnardi said. "I talked to [the career center] afterwards, and I said, ‘This shouldn't be there.'"

Labor Department guidelines say for-profit companies can't derive immediate advantage from unpaid work or use unpaid interns to displace paid workers. Interns have to understand they're not entitled to wages or future jobs. Internships have to be similar to educational environments and for the benefit of the interns. 

But the guidelines also say if interns receive academic credit and schools conduct oversight, internships are more likely to be considered legal. As a result, many colleges act as internship brokers — with varying levels of oversight. A 2012 survey found 90 percent of colleges offered academic credit for off-campus internships. But only half of the officials surveyed said their schools had "actively put measures in place to monitor the quality of unpaid internships."

On a campus of around 19,000 undergraduates, about 1,150 people have signed Isnardi's petition asking NYU's career center to remove illegal postings, including students, professors and other supporters. Isnardi thinks more people supported her cause but were afraid to add their names.

"I've had friends who said they completely supported me, but they thought that just by supporting this petition, they'd be blacklisted by employers," Isnardi said. "There's definitely a lot of fear."

Since then, Isnardi says she has worked with the career center to improve screening for internship listings. Now, NYU's CareerNet requires employers to confirm their internships follow legal guidelines and warns employers that "questionable" postings may be removed.

The site also offers students more tailored search options for compensation. Students can choose between internships that are "paid," "unpaid in compliance with NYU and DOL guidelines," for "academic credit," "both paid & academic credit," or paid with a "stipend." Isnardi said she hoped this change would alleviate some confusion — before, she found that some employers advertised "paid" internships where the only "compensation" was academic credit.

NYU declined to confirm any of the changes.

"Internal discussions on this matter are ongoing," Diana Gruverman, director of employer services, said in an email. "There is no new information to share at this time."

Many colleges have been slow to crack down on legally dubious internships. One survey of school officials found only 16 percent of colleges banned unpaid internships by for-profit companies on career websites. Only half of the officials reported that their schools educated students about employers' legal obligations. A small minority— 9 percent – reported that they "discouraged" students from participating in unpaid internships.

At NYU, Isnardi thinks her petition has made a difference: Today, there are more than 4,000 paid internships available through career services, compared to fewer than 500 paid options, which Isnardi saw last summer. Isnardi still wants the university to remove all unpaid listings from for-profits, but says she thinks officials are afraid to do anything that could put students at a disadvantage.

In the meantime, she plans to keep pushing for more paid internship listings and hopes to spread her campaign to other universities. "This fight is just beginning," she said.

For more on college internships, see our story about Northwestern University's journalism program and help us calculate the cost per internship class at your school.

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