The Great Internship Scam

It’s May 15, and most juniors and seniors in my program are settling in at their summer internships. If past is prologue, more than 85% of our PR majors are earning a paycheck at or above $8 an hour. Most of these interns also are earning 1 academic credit for the internship and paying around $500 for that credit.

Lots of students at my university and elsewhere aren’t so lucky. You see, a lot of schools and departments require 3 credits for an internship or practicum. So at my place, the cost could rise to around $1,500. For students enrolled in private schools, the price for internship credit may be double and even triple that number, as private schools earn no state subsidies.

I’ve spoken with students who’ve paid upwards of $4,000 for the privilege of earning academic credit for their internships.

The value of academic internship credit is dubious at best. It generally means a faculty member or administrator reads the students’ internship reports and collects a standard evaluation form at the end of the semester. In some disciplines, students receive some assistance in finding internships. In mine, not so much, since our faculty members are pretty well connected to the profession.

Point is, most schools collect a lot of money from interns and do little to earn it.

Now, imagine you’re a student who isn’t paid for a 15-week summer internship. After all, about 50% of U.S. college interns work for free (depending on which survey you believe). At $10/hour, 40 hours a week, that’s $6,000 you DIDN’T earn. Now, if you’re also required to pay for internship credits — average 3 credits per internship, which is typical — add another $1,200 – $1,500 for public institutions, $2,500 – $4,000 for the privates.

We’re talking serious money here. If you add the lost pay and the academic fees, it’s conceivable that an intern from a private school could finish the summer as much as $10,000 in the hole. And that doesn’t account for room and board at the internship site. Add another $3,000 — more if you’re in a high-cost city.

Employers know that demand for internships far outstrips the supply, so many choose not to pay students for their work. The schools pile on, often requiring that students compete internships for credit, offering little for the tuition dollars they collect.

In the headline I label this internship system a scam, and that’s probably unfair. After all, most scams are illegal, and most victims of scams don’t know they’re being flimflammed. This system is above board, though it is outrageous. The costs aren’t hidden, just exorbitant.

I won’t get into the debate over paid vs. unpaid internships today. I’ve covered that ground before. Besides, with a little good fortune and a sympathetic judge or two, maybe the courts will settle the debate over internship pay in next year or two. The battle lines are being draw as I write this post.

It’s time for colleges and universities to stop charging their interns for services that aren’t being delivered. And it’s time for those who employ interns to do so legally — by issuing a paycheck for services rendered.

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If you care about this topic, read this column by a journalism student at a large Midwestern university where I sometimes hang out. This guy got off cheap, with just $500 in fees. But his message is worth its weight in gold.

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