How Colleges & Universities Should Handle Internships

(This follows Tuesday’s “Ask the Recruiter,” which urged employers to pay interns.)

Unpaid interns are caught in a terrible bind.

With one hand, they and their families are paying for housing, food, transportation and other expenses while they work long days just for the experience. With the other hand, they are paying a tuition bill for the privilege of doing that free work. In many cases, employers believe they are covering themselves by accepting only the college students who are getting credit for the internship.

Some college administrators say that the for-credit internship racket makes them feel complicit in having their best students lose money for working. Some have talked about somehow refusing to let their students work in unpaid internships, but that is not feasible and might be unwise, given competition for internships.

The problem was not created by the colleges and universities. The best of them require their students to work in the so-called real world, knowing that a classroom can not really replicate a newsroom.

We had a debate about this at Michigan State University, where I teach, when we were modernizing the curriculum. I became more agitated than was necessary. Most of my colleagues voted to keep the requirement. I need not have worried.

But given a world in which we make internships a curriculum requirement, we have a responsibility to earn the tuition money we collect for having others do our teaching. Many institutions earn that money by providing leads, bringing in headhunters, setting up internships, prepping students for internship success and following up on students’ experiences to prune unsuitable employers from their preferred lists.

I have seen that happen. Good career services might justify tuition money from unpaid internships, though the directors I have known help everyone who asks for it.

In my experience, some of the best at it were the people at the Dow Jones News Fund — not a university, but a foundation that would send someone to the newsroom to talk, face-to-face, with the interns and their supervisors. I was pretty sure that if we did a lousy job at the Detroit Free Press that we would not be able to host the interns, for whom we paid a premium on top of their union-scale salaries. That’s good monitoring.

At Northwestern’s Medill, where unpaid experiences called journalism residencies are set up by the school, students write about their experiences to help those coming after them. Medill curates its list, too, and has a good record matching students with alums at the host newsrooms.

And at one university, when a student reported to the intern director she had been harassed on her internship, the intern director followed up by checking with other students, found there was merit to the charge, cut that company out of the program and filed a complaint with the employer. We need to be that involved to rightfully collect tuition money.

Coming Friday: I’ll address readers’ concerns about negotiating pay. 

E-mail your questions on internships and careers to Joe.

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