Tackling unpaid internships at Inside Higher Ed, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun fears the Department of Labor's recent clampdown on illegally unpaid internships could discourage employers from bringing students on board because of cost. Instead of depending on the government, he argues, colleges should step in and police unpaid internships themselves to ensure they provide a genuine educational experience -- one that is worth college credit:
Schools can and should require employers to provide detailed job descriptions that set clear expectations. In addition, employers should outline the learning outcomes students are expected to achieve upon completing their experiences.
But that's what a lot of colleges end up doing anyway, and students still wind up performing mundane data entry or dusting bookshelves for free. Too often, colleges have companies sign quick contracts that they don't read, and because students get credit for their gigs, employers assume the Fair Labor Standards Act magically evaporates.
But college credit does not count as "compensation" under minimum-wage law -- nor has it ever. The "new" Wage and Hour Division guidelines everyone's talking about have been around for more than 60 years. If an employer doesn't meet the six requirements that exempt a position from being deemed "employment," then the position is a job -- and the student has to be paid. Awarding college credit for an illegally unpaid internship doesn't remedy the situation.
It should perhaps be expected that colleges are generally toothless enforcers of labor standards: Most students who get college credit for participating in an internship pay the college for those credit hours. A survey of more than 12,000 interns found that among those who received college credit for an internship, 71 percent had to fork over tuition money. That means a whole slew of students don't simply work tedious jobs at their own cost-of-living expense; they literally pay to work.
Making employers and educational institutions, both of which benefit from student labor even when it's for credit, enforcers of labor laws is a bad idea. That's why the Department of Labor is right to intercede, but it should take aim at both employers and schools that funnel students into internships.
One possibility is holding schools that grant college credit accountable in the same way employers are if they violate labor laws. If colleges have some accountability for delivering on the promise that students get a real education for tuition money, perhaps they'll make sure the employers aren't schooling their students in Dry Cleaning 101. Then both the employers and the schools have something real to lose -- instead of everything to gain -- from taking advantage of students in for-credit, unpaid internships,.
-- Rebecca Delaney
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