The Limits of My Sympathy for Unpaid College Interns

08/17/2011 01:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education online address concerns regarding the perceived exploitation of college students in unpaid internships, but that these experiences are necessary to put liberal arts educations into practice.

Carefully conceived, academically informed internships provide that kind of added value -- a good return on the investment of the students' energy, intelligence, and time, whether or not they are paid.

Fantastic, I completely agree. Yet, this entry comes roughly a year after prior coverage in the Chronicle of new fair labor standards released in April 2010 by the US Department of Labor, which outlines the limits of what work or employment need not be compensated, including six criteria that should be met in order to classify a job as an unpaid internship.

I can see why this is an important conversation to have both a year ago when the fact sheet was first released and to keep the discussion going, as the Chronicle has done in a recent piece and in what Inside Higher Education contributed earlier in April. From my perspective, I do believe we need to be wary of the willingness of organizations to exploit unpaid labor to save on payroll. And those of us in higher education can certainly sympathize given the transition of many full-time positions to visiting, adjunct, and other part-time classifications without benefits. Actually, we may see the extinction of brick-and-mortar teaching altogether, substituted by more online learning or a bunch of YouTube videos.

But within this relatively recent debate on the academic merits of unpaid internships or the potential exploitation of college-age student workers, part of me feels like saying, "cry me a river." Seriously. And here's why. As an education faculty member who supervises student teachers, extensive and unpaid internships have been part of the deal for as long as anyone can remember. So, I guess students and faculty members from other disciplines are finally feeling the sting of that whole experiential learning thing.

I've always marveled during my years in teacher education how hard our seniors work their final year. The de facto practice in many programs has already been a slow progression of classroom experiences starting sometime during the student's junior year, culminating in a completely full-time internship their last semester. Since January, pre-service teachers with whom I work have been attending their schools full-time. That is, every single school day, starting at roughly 8 a.m. and sometimes staying as late as six or seven in the evening. There are numerous before and after school activities in which they participate, a two-hour weekly seminar, and finally a number of projects and assignments they must complete to graduate. Let us also not forget trying to find a job on top of all of this.

When I hear talk of violating labor laws or even pushes to ban unpaid internships altogether, I wonder if anyone understands what student teachers in teacher education must do to earn their degrees and certification. On the merits of experiential academic components alone, I would bet dollars to donuts that undergraduate teachers, perhaps along with other service-oriented professions (e.g., nursing and social work), work harder and longer hours than students in other disciplines. I'm sure there are exceptional programs and exceptional students out there in, say, business or psychology that do tremendous work, don't get me wrong.

I wanted to respond to this relatively recent outrage against unpaid internships in higher education by touting the extensive experiences that cohort after cohort of student teachers goes through. On the one hand, maybe students in other majors need to suck it up a little bit and put their knowledge to the test in the real world. Or, on the other, I wonder if student teaching internships should be revisited under the Department of Labor's new criteria. Just a thought.