Ending the farce of unpaid internships

Posted by: Peter Sterne 1 year, 6 months ago


It's nice to see Columbia finally end the charade of providing fake "R credit" for unpaid internships. As Dean Yatrakis noted in her announcement of the new policy, this change puts Columbia's policy in line with its peer schools. I don't believe that any other Ivy League school provides fake credit for unpaid internships. Yale specifically says that it "does not award credit for internships. This policy is not unique to Yale; it is shared by all Ivy League institutions and some liberal-arts colleges." 

Columbia's old policy didn't make much sense; the R credit didn't actually count toward your degree, so there was no reason for students to bother applying for it. All it really did was make employers feel better about violating the labor law. Companies believed (wrongly, in my opinion) that as long as the Columbia students working for them could receive "college credit" — even if that credit was meaningless — then the students could be classified as "interns" and legally not be paid. 

But according to the Department of Labor, the difference between an unpaid intern and an employee (who must be paid) isn't whether or not one receives academic credit. There are actually six criteria for distinguishing an unpaid intern from an employee. Providing college credit arguably fulfills one of the criteria, which involves providing "training which would be given in an educational environment." But there are still five more criteria that need to be met, such as the requirement that an intern not displace regular employees.

So if you hire an unpaid intern to do work instead of hiring a paid employee, it doesn't matter whether or not the intern receives college credit; the unpaid internship is illegal regardless. 

Career Services knows this. "If any of these criteria are not met, the intern must be paid," it tells employers who want to hire Columbia students.   

There is actually a way for Ivy Leauge students to receive academic credit for their internships. With a professor's guidance, a student can pursue an "academic internship" — which is basically an independent study that requires you to write a research paper about something related to your internship. Like any other independent study, this will give the student real academic credit, not the fake R credit stuff.

I know from personal experience that Columbia does this, too. Last year, while I interned at the Columbia Journalism Review, I took a two-credit class in the Poli/Sci department called "Workshop in Media and Politics." It required me to write a research paper about the relationship between mass media and politics, based on what I learned and experienced in the internship. We might see more students doing these kinds of academic internships and independent studies. 

Most likely, Columbia's decision will add to the pressure on employers to pay their interns. It's possible that some employers will refuse to hire Columbia students because they won't receive "credit," but I think that's pretty unlikely, especially since the other Ivy League schools have already adopted these policies. Is an employer really going to refuse to hire any Ivy League students just because they mistakenly think they don't have to pay people who receive "college credit"? I doubt it. 

This policy change, along with the increasing numbers of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns, will hopefully get employers to understand what the law actually says: you generally have to pay the people who work for you. With actual money, not college credit and "experience."

[Photo credit: farm7 / Flickr]


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