Why we shouldn’t require internships

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this is an imageAh, paid internships the dream of every career-minded undergraduate student. It’s a satisfying feeling when a company is willing to pay you for every hour you put in, or to give you a somewhat hefty amount of money for your work. It’s like having a “real job,” except maybe with a little less pay. That paycheck can help pay for rent, groceries, textbooks, phone bills and and other expenses. You could live on it. Maybe.

Below paid internships are the unpaid internships the ones that desperate college students will jump at in order to pad their resume and up their chances for a paid internship the following year. Some offer slight perks to make up for the unpaid labor, like free metro cards, unlimited snacks in the office, special networking and educational events and perhaps even a small stipend to cover lunch expenses. Or maybe just a thank-you card at the end and a going-away party with balloons and your favorite cake.

I wish I could stop there at what is essentially volunteer work, but even below the unpaid internships are the often required for-credit internships, where students are paying thousands of dollars in tuition money to work.

Don’t get me wrong internships are an incredible way to get practical experience, figure out whether you like the field and build valuable networking contacts. As a journalism major, I think all journalism students should have several internships on their resumes by the time they graduate. I have had three journalism internships, one in my hometown and two in Washington, D.C., and I plan on getting a fourth one next spring before I graduate. Although classwork is important, it is incomparable to the growth I have achieved through my internship experiences.

But for some reason it is acceptable in the college setting to ask someone to pay to work. Imagine if anybody else tried to do that: “Pay us $3,927 and we’ll let you work full-time at our company this summer!”

The curricula for several APU majors, including communication studies, journalism, global studies, applied exercise science, Christian ministries, social work and marketing, require students to take a 3 or 4-unit internship class, which essentially asks them to find an off-campus internship, put in a specific amount of hours during the semester, then meet with their classes and professors for discussion.

I didn’t make up $3,927 that’s the price APU students pay for each 3-unit class if they are paying per unit or have only 12 units. The 2013-14 tuition fee for a full-time student (12-18 units) is $15,708. If you take 15 units, you are paying $3,141.60 per 3-unit class. The cheapest price you can pay for a 3-unit fall or spring class is if you are taking a full 18 units, making each 3-unit class $2,618.

In the summer, tuition is discounted to $524 per unit. But even so, this means students who take the a 3-unit internship class then are paying more than $1,500 to work.

I generally take 16 units a semester, which means a 3-unit internship class would cost me almost $3,000. For the record, here’s a list of things I would rather do with three grand:

  • Buy a round trip ticket to Paris
  • Get a motorcycle or two just for kicks
  • Pay my rent for the rest of the school year
  • Get my car a new paint job

The point of requiring an internship is to force students to get a taste of their future career. Internships allow students to develop their skills in a professional setting and figure out what they like and don’t like. But these are things that ambitious college students should be doing themselves. We don’t need somebody to hold our hands.

I sought out Dr. Marcia Berry, who is in charge of the internship class all communication studies and journalism majors are required to take. I never actually took her class, since I fulfilled my internship requirement through a study abroad semester in D.C.

Berry said she is like “a job coach” for students throughout their internships. She gives her students feedback, advice and guidance and spends one-on-one time with each student.

“I think it is a plus,” she said about required internships. “It helps students do something that they would probably want to do, but now they’re required to do it. Like you may not want to write your senior sem paper, but when you’re finished, you’re really proud of it.”

This is true. There are many wholesome and educational things I wouldn’t do if it weren’t required of me — volunteer work, chapel, a senior thesis, among others — but none of those things are taking away monetary payment, or worse, making me cough up money for it. Imagine if we were required to complete 30 MAS credits per year, and to also pay $20 per MAS credit. Or if we were required to go to three chapels per week, and to also fork over a $20 admission fee per chapel session.

Brian Mercer, the manager of the Office of Curricular Support, said the internship class is valuable because it is “a debrief” that allows students to discuss their experiences with classroom concepts played out in a practical setting.

“Once you leave the cocoon, or APU bubble, you don’t have that professor to vent with anymore. You don’t have your classmates,” he said.

But I was still disgruntled at the idea of forking over $3,000 to work and discuss my internship experience in a class, when I can just schedule an appointment with my trusty adviser if I need advice or want to discuss anything.

“You could argue that the whole idea of going to college is paying to work,” Mercer pointed out to me. “You’re going to pay however many thousands of dollars for education just so you can land a job. But that shouldn’t be where our focus is … really, the benefit of going to college is not just the better job. It’s becoming a more well-rounded person.”

The strongest argument for for-credit internships is the threat of liability to companies who do not compensate their interns for their work. Under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act, companies who do not pay their interns must provide a somewhat educational training experience. Several companies have been sued by disgruntled unpaid interns, prompting many internship programs (like USA Today’s) to only accept interns who are receiving academic credit for their work.

But unpaid internships readily offer a solution to the never-ending dilemma of needing experience to land a job but needing a job to get experience. Those lacking in experience can boost their skills in an unpaid internship, at no cost to the employer. Only then do they really have a chance at landing a paid position.

But it’s hard to change their minds, and I get it. Because of that, I think it’s a step in the right direction to offer an internship class as an elective, but not to require it. This is already the policy for certain majors such as Spanish, English (writing concentration), theatre arts, cinematic arts, music (commercial music emphasis) and business management. This way, students can be their own judge as to whether a for-credit-only internship is worth their tuition dollars.

Instead of forcing all students to pay to work, we could give lazy students that extra motivation to go out and get experience by still requiring internships, but documenting it in a manner similar to the MAS credit documentation process. There are ways to prove a legitimate internship without requiring students to take a class
— a time sheet log of the students’ weekly hours, signed off by his or her supervisor, a form for supervisors to fill out regarding their intern’s work, a reflection essay about the experience and copies of published clips or work samples. This way, unenthusiastic students will still be pushed to succeed, while already-motivated students will not be forced to pay thousands of dollars for internships they will have already sought out on their own.