Must Read: Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?

This Op-Ed article by Ross Perlin investigates the current unpaid internship situation at universities across the nation. Students who intern for free have no real protection, Perlin writes.

“The United States Department of Labor says an intern at a for-profit company may work without pay only when the program is similar to that offered in a vocational school, benefits the student, does not displace a regular employee and does not entitle the student to a job; in addition, the employer must derive ‘no immediate advantage’ from the student’s work and both sides must agree that the student is not entitled to wages.

Many students take for-credit internships “[T]he Labor Department has said that ‘academic credit alone does not guarantee that the employer is in compliance,'” writes Perlin.

“Fearing a crackdown by regulators, some colleges are asking the government, in essence, to look the other way. In a letter last year, 13 university presidents told the Labor Department, ‘While we share your concerns about the potential for exploitation, our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education.’

“Far from resisting the exploitation of their students, colleges have made academic credit a commodity. Just look at Menlo College, a business-focused college in northern California, which sold credits to a business called Dream Careers. Menlo grossed $50,000 from the arrangement in 2008, while Dream Careers sold Menlo-accredited internships for as much as $9,500.

“To meet the credit requirement of their employers, some interns have essentially had to pay to work for free: shelling out $2,700 to the University of Pennsylvania in the case of an intern at NBC Universal and $1,600 to New York University by an intern at ‘The Daily Show,’ to cite two examples from news reports.

“Charging students tuition to work in unpaid positions might be justifiable in some cases — if the college plays a central role in securing the internship and making it a substantive academic experience. But more often, internships are a cheap way for universities to provide credit — cheaper than paying for faculty members, classrooms and equipment.

“A survey of more than 700 colleges by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 95 percent allowed the posting of unpaid internships in campus career centers and on college Web sites. And of those colleges, only 30 percent required that their students obtain academic credit for those unpaid internships; the rest, evidently, were willing to overlook potential violations of labor law.”

As Perlin concludes, “Colleges have turned internships into a prerequisite for the professional world but have neither ensured equal access to these opportunities, nor insisted on fair wages for honest work.”

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