Paying to Play: The Problem With For-Credit Internships

10/12/2011 07:14 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

Last month at colleges and universities around the country young people went back to school, and back to work. But unlike the majority of the workforce, this highly educated, highly motivated and highly desperate college and graduate horde will not only likely be working for free -- many may even be paying for that very privilege.

Unpaid internships, of course are nothing new and no longer elicit much sympathy. I should know, having recently begun my third journalism internship, two of which have been unpaid, for academic credit. My generation left college with the deflating realization that our hard-won diplomas no longer carry with them the promise of full-time employment.

Accordingly, graduate school looms large as part of a last-ditch holding pattern. And so we dutifully sink ourselves deeper in debt in an attempt to put off further unemployment. Once robust industries, notably journalism, have slashed budgets along with staffers, leaving unpaid interns to fill the void.

Times are tough. Employers get free labor, and the theory is we interns get that elusive "work experience in return." Work experience has quickly become the accepted currency of the graduate school job seeker. That this agreement amounts to free labor is practically passé. The work experience, and the potential connections that come with it, are worth the exchange of labor. It's an old-fashioned tradition, dating back to the once-prevalent practice of apprenticeships. Everybody wins, right?

Well, actually, according to federal statute individuals who provide services for for-profit entities must be paid for minimum wage. It's a technical point, yes, but one the busybody feds have recently picked up on. In swooped the Department of Labor with its Wage and Hour Division (WHD), intent on saving the day, and forcing irritated employers to abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Ever the meddler, the Supreme Court created a loophole for this law following World War II. In Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., the Court ruled that an intern is not necessarily "under employed" and therefore not necessarily entitled to minimum wage.

Confused? The WHD has created a nifty, six-item test for unpaid interns wondering if perhaps they might qualify for an hourly wage. Interns do not qualify for minimum wage if the job "is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment," and is "for the benefit of the intern." But internships are also not allowed to "displace regular employees," or "derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern." Both of these conditions are ridiculous -- it goes without saying interns may displace regular employees, hence the need for them in the first place, and of course the employer is deriving an advantage from the intern.

The important part here relates to this idea of the "educational environment." What better way to prove this environment than federally mandated credit. Credit proves without a doubt the internship's educational merit, it benefits the student, and the employer observes labor law. Symbiosis at last.

Excited by the prospect of such a clean resolution, the Department of Labor has been cracking down on unpaid internships, requiring employers to either provide wages or confirm that their student minions are receiving due credit. What the well-meaning bureaucrats forgot, or overlooked, is that credit, for many graduate students, is not free.

Of the three top journalism schools in New York City, only Columbia's tuition, a cool $52,000 or so, is all-inclusive. CUNY Journalism charges $650 dollars per credit for out of state and international students. NYU represents a particularly egregious example of this for-credit debacle. The private institution I happen to attend tops the list, with a pay-as-you-go graduate program averaging $1,300 a credit.

Therefore every semester myself and hundreds of my peers are being forced to pay to play. Well, forced is not entirely accurate -- we could choose not to have an internship, choose not to compete with our peers in an essential part of the job-seeking process. Few make this choice. Most of us pay. And thousands upon thousands of additional tuition dollars pour into university coffers, money for credits that are generally superfluous.

Interestingly, in 2009 President John Sexton was one of 13 presidents who sent a strongly worded letter to the Department of Labor discouraging further regulation on unpaid internships. "While we share your concerns about the potential for exploitation, our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education... We urge great caution in changing an approach to learning that is viewed as a huge success by educators, employers, and students alike, and we respectfully request that the Department of Labor reconsider undertaking the regulation of internships."

Every student in my three-semester program at NYU -- a national reporting concentration -- is required to take a for-credit internship. But many of us take two, or even three before we graduate. These credits are not included in the other 12 units of our full-time course load, and they will not qualify us to graduate early. By the time we walk this December our for-credit internships will have earned the university more than $33,000. Chump change, perhaps, for a school that paid its chief over $1 million last year -- just think how many internships that salary could have subsidized.

The universities say these costs are justified. But the instructor for these "classes" is generally the Career Services director, an already existing salaried position. The real instructors, employers, do not receive any money. There are no real administrative costs, certainly none to justify such a sum. Some schools, including CUNY, offer grants to cover internships. Others just shrug. NYU could aggressively seek out grants, they could include internship credit as part of their regular tuition, hell they could simply refund the extra money. That they don't isn't necessarily evidence of a malicious intent, but it is certainly callous, careless and lazy.

In an effort to qualify for credit-only internships, I have met young graduates who've registered at local community colleges or for-profit "universities." Others put graduation on hold for a coveted position, while a few lucky ones talked their employers into fudging employment records. Allegedly. In the not so distant future this practice could become more and more prevalent as credit becomes just one more obligatory fee, a commodity to be bought, sold and bargained with.

I would like to state for the record that I am not against unpaid internships -- in many situations the experience can be both educational and rewarding. But it is ridiculous to require struggling students to pay to work for free. The concept is ludicrous, and the additional expense prohibitive. We students may complain, quietly, and to ourselves, but we don't speak up -- out of loyalty to our schools, or fear we won't be hired, because we don't want to seem ungrateful or somehow earn a bad reputation. My generation has already made sacrifices, and we are sure to make many more. Over the past year and half of full-time graduate work, I have worked as a bus boy, a youth soccer coach and an adjunct teaching assistant. I work hard, pay my dues and don't often complain. But I am no longer willing to pretend this exploitative practice is acceptable. Read my lips, John Sexton and friends. I may not have your townhouses, your responsibilities, or your millions. But I have my outrage -- all $50,000 of it. And I'm talking to you.