Internships are considered a rite of passage for undergrads, especially at AU. While the national rate of undergraduate internships is over 50 percent, AU’s is a staggering 81 percent. Here, it’s just part of the campus culture to complete an internship — even when it isn’t required, it’s simply expected.
But this “rah-rah” attitude doesn’t reflect the reality of internships, especially unpaid ones, which make up about two-thirds of all internships. While gaining experience is a tremendous benefit, there are costs that rarely enter into the conversation.
This is why the Department of Labor recently released guidelines for what constitutes a legal unpaid internship. They must be clearly educational, be for the benefit of the intern, not displace another employee and the employer must not profit from the intern. Easier said than done.
The bottom line is that unpaid interns are easy to exploit. They work for free, and who can really say whether or not the employer profits from their work? Furthermore, unpaid interns aren’t real “employees” and therefore aren’t protected by anti-discrimination laws, including sexual harassment laws. Interns simply exist in a gray area of the American workforce.
Universities tend to side with the employers on this issue, rather than the interns. Late last year, 13 college presidents signed a letter against more regulation of internships, arguing that they can effectively monitor whether or not an internship is worthwhile. Career centers at these colleges, however, don’t agree, finding themselves swamped by the number of interns and stuck between pleasing the employer and the intern.
It should also be pretty obvious that the benefits of unpaid internships are overwhelmingly more feasible for well-off students. To take on an unpaid internship is at least a 15 hour a week commitment, which on top of school is already looking like a 40 hour week. Having a job that can pay the bills is difficult when you’re already devoting at least 15 hours to working for free. Never mind that you actually have to pay the college for your internship, which at AU is well over $1,200 per credit hour.
What would it take to pay interns? Well, by one estimate, paying every single unpaid intern in the United States minimum wage would cost $124 million. Perhaps I’ve been looking at the national deficit too much, but that doesn’t seem like an insane amount. There’s no reason for colleges not to work with employers to make sure interns are rewarded fairly for their work.
Am I saying that internships are inherently evil? Of course not. Real-world experience is what keeps college graduates from just being hyper-educated tenderfeet with meaningless degrees. But they’re complicated, and universities need to reconsider their unrelenting positive attitude and face the reality of unpaid internships.
Emi Ruff-Wilkinson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and the winner of The Eagle’s Next Great Ratner contest.