To protect students, protect internships

Columbia University’s recent decision to stop offering academic credit for internships is the latest in a disturbing trend toward policies and actions that fundamentally threaten the internship, a vital career path for millions of students nationwide. While perhaps well intentioned, the decision by Columbia and other schools fails to address the problem it is intended to fix, and, if it becomes widespread, could dramatically limit the availability of an extremely valuable educational experience. 

Of course all students need access to educational experiences they can afford and that are respectful to them as students and employees. That is fundamental. But discussion of the “paid internship” question should start with two essential points: (1) ideally, all interns should be paid at least the minimum wage; but (2) a properly structured unpaid internship can be a valuable part of a student’s education. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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The best preparation future generations of working professionals can get is a college education that combines classroom instruction with real-world experiences. These students get both the best possible traditional education and on-the-job training. In a rapidly changing job market, employers expect job-seekers to have this type of experience at a minimum. Properly structured internships bring these benefits whether interns are paid or not. 

In recent years, student groups, labor activists and universities have rightly raised concerns about instances of students toiling away in internships for no pay, with employers exploiting free labor without providing a rich or substantive educational experience. The problem facing universities, students and employers alike is that federal and state regulators have overreacted, developing onerous regulations for unpaid internships that are out-of-touch with both a university’s desire to provide and a student’s desire to benefit from experiential learning. New York employers must comply with 6 federal and 5 additional state requirements when offering unpaid internships. Those rules are intended to prevent employers from exploiting American workers, and they are important. But the regulations do not adequately carve out space for a meaningful educational experience in an unpaid setting. Essentially, both the federal and state Departments of Labor say that internships must be an extension of the academic experience – with which I wholly agree. But according to the New York Department of Labor regulations, employers must “derive[s] no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students and, on occasion, operations may actually be impeded.”

So how do interns gain valuable professional experience without the employer benefitting? The answer is simple – they can’t. Internships that don’t benefit the employer don’t allow interns to hone their professional skills. The critical educational benefit lies in the “experiential learning,” not in the supplemental classroom discussion or reflective exercise.

At Pace University all internships, paid and unpaid, are closely monitored. There are periodic site visits and students are interviewed to assure that they are having meaningful experiences. When a student reports that an internship is not valuable, it is shut down. 

Because of the oxymoronic state and federal rules, some employers insist that universities offer students academic credit in order to bolster the employer’s legal position. In those cases, withdrawing credit will consign internships to the fate of the dormitory pay phone – a very bad result. Rather than work for more productive solutions, institutions like Columbia have given in to these extreme positions; adopting policies that make the situation worse, not better.

So let’s rewrite the rules to allow unpaid internships that are meaningful adjuncts to the educational process. Students need and deserve a range of options, especially in such a challenging job market. Denying those who are prepared to work without pay, but want meaningful professional experiences, just doesn’t make any sense.  

Friedman is president of Pace University.