The Columbia University library. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The time has come for the unpaid intern to rise up.
Or so argued David Dennis several weeks ago in a Guardian column, proclaiming that “unpaid internships and a culture of privilege are ruining journalism.” Most strikingly, Dennis argued that the proliferation of unpaid internships has done more damage than merely privileging the affluent and well-connected, who can afford to work for free. By affecting how news is covered, the practices have eroded the quality of journalism itself.
Dennis’s timing could not have been better. This month a federal judge ruled in favor of two former Black Swan production interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, who sued Fox Searchlight for backpay in a much-publicized 2011 lawsuit. The two coffee-fetchers “are ‘employees’ covered by the Fair Labor Standards (FLSA) as well as New York’s labor laws,” wrote federal judge William Pauley in a ruling that set strict criteria for how unpaid interns may—and may not—be used by employers in the future. Clearly the ruling has implications beyond Hollywood; already two former Condé Nast interns, represented by the same lawyers, have sued the magazine company for back wages, while a former Atlantic Records intern has filed a similar lawsuit against the record label.
As focus turns to the murky legality, exploitative nature and class privilege of many unpaid internships, here’s one way to improve the system: stop requiring that interns receive academic credit for their labor. In so doing, interns might more often receive actual compensation for their work rather than its illusion.
In the journalism sphere particularly, it has become increasingly common for publications to require academic credit as a prerequisite for internship opportunities. The practice seems innocuous. “Interns must be enrolled at an accredited college or university, and the internship must be completed for academic credit,” reads one such listing, by Time Out New York. A listing by the San Francisco Chronicle repeats the statement nearly verbatim. An overview of Vice’s internship program asks that interns provide a “letter from your school indicating you are receiving academic credit for the internship.”
Not by coincidence, all are unpaid.
By insisting that interns register the internship with their college, publications conveniently skirt legal responsibility to provide monetary compensation. Since the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that internships without pay be “similar to training which could be given in an educational environment,” requiring academic credit has become a popular means of mitigating the threat of lawsuit without necessarily providing a more educational experience than would have otherwise been afforded.
That’s not to mention the tangled web of academic bureaucracy would-be interns must negotiate when complying with such demands. At four-year colleges, there seems to be no consistent policy. According to The New York Times, Columbia University offers unpaid interns “registration credits,” which are of little use to students since they don’t count towards graduation. Bates College has a similar policy. Yale University, meanwhile, refuses to award internship credit to undergraduates altogether.
More pernicious is the effect posed by schools who charge students fees or additional tuition in exchange for internship credits. Of 8,939 interns surveyed by college consulting and research firm Intern Bridge in 2011, 47 percent were receiving credit and 56 percent of that total were paying tuition for that credit.
At Wesleyan University—the alma mater I share with Glatt and Footman—for example, a summer internship credit costs $700, or a quarter of summer per-credit tuition. The school thankfully waives the charge for students receiving need-based grant financial aid, but the same can’t be said for Bucknell University, where the fee is in some cases higher than $1,000. Bucknell—like Oberlin, which charges a relatively modest $50—requires the internship to be unpaid in order to grant credit.
The choice for internship applicants is a tough one: suck it up and pay to work or lie to your employer and hope for the best.
These fees are, of course, in addition to the steep costs of living and working in a city like New York for a summer without pay. It seems obvious that the students most benefited by the connections such an internship would provide are instead returning home and finding summer jobs to help pay off their loans. In journalism or publishing or film, those who can afford to pay to work will get ahead in what Sarah Kendzior has termed the “prestige economy”.
David Dennis is correct—unpaid internships have become a vehicle of class privilege, closing to many the opportunities they are intended to open up. Certainly, students should be able to receive school credit if they need or can afford the credit. But by making it a prerequisite for internships, employers are making a flawed system even worse.