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More would-be interns paying thousands to land a coveted spot
Those involved routinely point out that the programs cost less than some colleges charge for tuition. And as long as students receive academic credit, they are usually able to pay using their student loans, federal Pell grants or other forms of financial aid. Most companies offer scholarships, some funded by state governments, some by the companies.
Emily Goyert, 21, and her parents debated her decision to get an internship through the Fund for American Studies. She was unable to transfer any credits to the University of Michigan, where she will be a senior.
"We definitely just viewed it as an investment in my future," said Goyert, who interned at the Living Classrooms Foundation and created a weekend program for a D.C. neighborhood. "There are only so many internships, and everyone wants one."
The tuition payments add up to millions of dollars of revenue for the internship programs, many of which operate as nonprofit groups, pay their top employees six-figure salaries and set up shop in prime D.C. real estate.
The nonprofit Washington Center has its headquarters in a former embassy blocks from the White House. The center had about $18 million in revenue last fiscal year and has a staff of 75, with at least eight employees making six-figure salaries. The president, Michael B. Smith, was paid more than $300,000 last year.
Adele R. Cehrs, a spokeswoman for the center, said in a statement that "like any well-managed nonprofit, the Board of Directors determines the salary for the President of the organization and ensures it is comparable to other similarly sized organizations in the industry."
The Fund for American Studies is a nonprofit group based in a renovated mansion in Dupont Circle and had about $8.4 million in revenue last fiscal year. At least four employees have six-figure salaries, including director Roger R. Ream, who is paid more than $250,000 a year. Ream said his salary is comparable to those at similar nonprofit organizations, and he took a pay cut last year because of the economy.
The topic of tuition and salaries "doesn't come up with our students. Maybe because we have been doing it for 40 years," Ream said. "We have a lot of eager students who come to our program."
Employers are usually sent a list of potential candidates to select from. A few pay students a small stipend at the end of the summer or assist with travel costs, but a large majority of these internships are unpaid.
"They are all young people who are smart, motivated, willing to work and willing to do grunt work," said Bernadette Musselwhite, a Montgomery County government business development specialist who has received interns from the Washington Center for two years. "We started with one, then two, then three this summer. We might have four or five interns this fall."
Musselwhite said she did not know how much the program cost students. "We didn't go into the specifics," she said. "We'd like to be in a position where we could pay for interns, but given the current economic crisis, there is no way in the world."
All of the programs say that they have inside connections that can provide students an internship they might not otherwise be able to get. The three nonprofit programs tout their ability to place students at federal agencies. A photo on the Washington Internship Institute Web site, for instance, shows five students standing in front of a State Department sign.