Opinion: Unpaid, for-credit internship tuition exploits students

AU discriminates against low-income students with internship credit policies

Opinion: Unpaid, for-credit internship tuition exploits students

After a painstaking waiting period, I finally got to call my parents to tell them the good news: I was accepted to a summer internship program. Seconds after confirming my participation, I emailed my advisor to register my unpaid internship for credit. My excitement quickly diminished, however, when she informed me that I would have to pay American University thousands of dollars to receive credit for my unpaid labor.

On paper, unpaid internships are already unappealing. Despite practically working a full-time job like everyone else in your office, and the gas, rent and food money you spend to be there, you are the only one who goes home unpaid. Students are told that unpaid internships are worth these expenditures for the experience. This mindset puts low-income students at a massive disadvantage. 

Public Health majors and School of Public Affairs Leadership students, who are required to take internships, are also unfairly impacted. Many students not only have to work for free, but also have to pay AU tuition to receive credit. Wealthy students are not necessarily strained by this financial reality. 

AU qualifies this tuition by creating a mandatory class students must take in tandem with their internships. Students cannot receive credit for their internship without enrolling in this class. The course covers job acceptance strategies such as resume building, interview preparation and elevator speeches. While my professor was very caring towards his students and taught each lesson well, the class felt unnecessary because the Career Center offers the same resources for free. The course mainly consisted of busy work and well-known job strategies, making it a waste of time, energy and money. 

The amount students pay to take this class varies depending on how many credits the student requests. For example, my internship was 30 hours a week until the end of summer. According to my advisor, this calculates to four credit hours. Therefore, I am paying four credit hours worth of tuition via summer rates. This summer, tuition was $1,635.00 per credit hour, meaning I paid $6,540.00. Students participating in a one-credit internship paid $1,635.00 for the exact same class. 

In sum, I paid five thousand dollars more than a peer receiving identical resources.

This is unfair. Students should pay the same amount of money for the same course. AU’s system guarantees that students who work more hours lose more money. Students already working at a loss should not have to additionally pay the University for inequitable tuition. 

During the school year, students may not have time to participate in an internship while busy with classes, extracurriculars and part-time jobs. Summer is the only time most students have to partake in an internship or get a well-paying job. Forcing students to pay for internship credits creates a major opportunity cost. Students lose thousands of dollars in tuition and miss out on a paying summer job in exchange for their unpaid internship credit. Those who need an income during the summer miss out on valuable experiences that only higher-income students can afford. 

Certain schools within AU offer summer internship scholarships to help alleviate these costs, but these scholarships are extremely limited and difficult to receive. In 2021, SPA announced a “competition” for a $2,500 scholarship, which only two people could win. Scholarships from the regular school year do not apply to the more expensive summer term.

AU should either abolish extra tuition costs for students taking internships for credit altogether or have students pay the same amount for the same class. To assist in closing the wealth gap in education, the first option should be the only option. 

Alexis Bernstein is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a staff columnist for The Eagle. 

abernstein@theeagleonline.com

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