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Do more to fight unpaid internships

In his April 2 column in The New York Times, “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges,” Ross Perlin accuses four-year colleges and universities, along with industry employers, of preventing students from getting the monetary or academic recognition they deserve for their unpaid summer internships. According to Perlin, 75 percent of students work as interns at least once during their college careers, and between one-third and half of these students do not receive compensation for their work. These unpaid internships are exempt from normal work place sexual harassment and discrimination policies and are usually accessible only to students who can afford to work and live without pay for a summer.

Unpaid internships perpetuate social inequity by working to the benefit of the best-off. Universities can and should fight this inequity by lobbying state governments and changing their own internship policies.

The U. S. Department of Labor website states that students can intern at for-profit companies with no compensation only if “the internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.” Many universities provide academic credit for unpaid internships to keep compliance with this rule. But, Perlin points out, surveys show that only about one-third of colleges require their students to receive academic credit for internships with no pay. These revelations should be disturbing to college students, who risk violating federal labor laws when they do not receive credit.

For students who cannot pay for accommodation over the summer, or for students who need to have an income over the summer to supplement their tuition costs during the academic year, unpaid internships are often out of reach. But unpaid internships in media, entertainment, politics, law and other fields are key to successful careers after graduation. This poses a major obstacle to worse off students pursuing these careers—an obstacle employers and universities are complicit in creating.

Universities should band together to pressure state governments to regulate the compensation that students receive for internships. Much progress could be made toward mitigating the exploitation of students in North Carolina if Duke and the University of North Carolina system jointly lobbied the N.C. General Assembly to ban unpaid internships.

Besides pushing for policy changes, Duke can change its own policies to ensure that students intern under suitable conditions. The Career Center should actively review internship providers, giving high marks to those that provide adequate compensation. Moreover, the Career Center should more actively advertise summer funding and grants for students who have accepted unpaid internships. Many available grants often go unused because students do not know about them or miss the application deadlines. If application deadlines were pushed back, students could wait to apply for grants until after they know they have an unpaid internship for the summer. Finally, the University could make an unpaid internship stipend part of student financial aid packages to mitigate the disadvantages of less wealthy students.

Internships are a vital part of students’ academic and professional development. Universities should do more to ensure that students receive the summer work experiences they deserve–regardless of their ability to spring for a summer without pay.

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