Katie Wolchko and her boyfriend, Joshua Siegel, started a petition at Seton Hall University to end the internship requirement at the school. They contend that they are paying the university for the unpaid work they do during internships. (Courtesy of Katie Wolchko)

Internships have become an integral part of the college experience, with some schools requiring students to complete at least one internship before they graduate into the working world, where employers increasingly are giving preference to candidates with experience.

Although students often appreciate the advantage that internships provide — and can reap the benefits later as they seek employment — some are pushing back against the long-standing college practice of charging tuition for the credits students earn through unpaid internships. Students at several schools are beginning to allege publicly that colleges are profiting from their free labor, collecting money from families already stretched by the high cost of higher education while being spared the expense of providing instruction.

The conflict is emerging from a fundamental debate about the future of higher education: Colleges increasingly are seeking to provide career-oriented opportunities for students, saying that internships are an invaluable part of their programs and require direct faculty supervision. Students say that paying to work is an outdated and unfair model, especially when they are poised to graduate with the heavy burden of student-loan debt.

“This is a huge ethical issue for universities that they are sneaking under the rug,” said David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “In this era of skyrocketing student debt, the fact that students are probably having to borrow money to do an internship for free is appalling.”

Colleges generally make no distinction between internship programs and any other courses that come with a tuition bill, saying that academic internships require costly faculty work.

“It would be great if we could provide academic supervision in a way that didn’t cost the institution anything, but there isn’t,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “If faculty are involved, somebody has to pay for the cost of having them there. It is a financial issue.”

Joshua Siegel does not buy that argument. The Seton Hall University senior is among a group of students petitioning the school in South Orange, N.J., to stop charging for internship credits.

“It’s unfortunate that the school, which is not providing the service, not facilitating the process, not suffering any strain on its resources, feels it is owed compensation for me performing a function on my own,” Siegel said.

Despite having a summer internship at a charity, Siegel, 21, must complete others sanctioned by the university to get his bachelor’s degree in diplomacy. Seton Hall officials say Siegel can opt out of the requirement by picking up another class, but he says that option does nothing to resolve the underlying problem: a lack of money.

To keep a handle on costs, Siegel has been taking 18 credits a semester since switching his major from history to diplomacy. He figured that a full load of classes would help him avoid spending an extra year in school. But Siegel still has a three-credit internship hanging over his head, at a tuition cost of about $3,000.

“It’s an undue financial burden,” Siegel said. “Even if I opt out, I’m still paying money either way. I’ve taken all the classes in my major, so I’d have to just take any class that fits in my schedule.”

Seton Hall officials say they understand that students are concerned about costs but that the school must cover the expense of running internship courses.

“These courses are an extension of the classroom,” said Joan Guetti, senior associate provost at Seton Hall. “Faculty have to set up the internships, the hours, the assignments — papers, journal entries or presentations. There’s a lot more to this than students see.”

Four majors at Seton Hall have internship requirements, and the requirement is under consideration for several other majors, according to Reesa Greenwald, director of the school’s career center. Seton Hall students can avoid additional charges by taking the internship courses during the school year, when flat-rate tuition is charged. But that rate does not apply in the summer, an optimal time for undertaking internships.

Seton Hall is proud of integrating work experience into the curriculum, which gives students an edge in the job market, Greenwald said. Eighty-eight percent of the students in the Class of 2015 were employed in fields related to their majors within six months of graduating, she said.

“Our goal is to help students find a satisfying career, a lucrative career, when they leave us,” Greenwald said.

Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said colleges are responding to employers’ demands that graduates have “real-world” experience.

Employers place a premium on graduates with internships on their résumés, according to the Georgetown center. Starting salaries for graduates with paid internships average about $52,000, compared with $37,000 for those without internship. Nearly two-thirds of college graduates who complete paid internships receive job offers upon graduating, compared with just 35 percent of recent graduates who do not have internship experience.

“These things are like gold,” Carnevale said, adding that about 10 percent of the nation’s 20 million college students are able to secure internships during their college careers.

College internships vary widely. Positions that pay are difficult to find, and some of the most prestigious posts, at nonprofit organizations and in government agencies, offer no compensation, presenting an extreme challenge for those students who already have trouble paying for college.

Carnevale and other higher-education advocates say one economical way to help students who are in financial need to get work experience would be to turn federal work-study jobs into subsidized internships. The Obama administration considered the idea, but it failed to advance because colleges, which typically employ federal work-study students on campus, declined to give up the low-wage labor the federal program provides, Carnevale said.

Academic credit has become a stand-in for pay and is a popular way for colleges to regulate internships.

“Having academic credit increases the value of the internship,” said Hartle, of the American Council on Education. “It means that somebody is trying to make sure the internship is a good, productive experience and that students are not just [spending their time] filing papers.”

Offering credit for student work is mutually beneficial for companies and universities. Employers get free labor and can avoid liability insurance for students, and schools can promote their program’s connections to the working world.

“Touting internships for credit is one of the ways schools can at least claim to be providing practical training as part of degree programs,” said Suffolk University’s Yamada. “It’s not quite free money for the university . . . but it’s not credit hours that have to be covered by classroom teaching.”

Cleveland State University graduate student Tim Russo said his school has provided no support for his internship, which he landed himself at a friend’s law firm.

“I feel like I’m getting exploited by the system,” said Russo, 48, who must complete a three-credit internship to get his master’s degree in global interactions. “There’s no guidance, no guidelines, nothing.”

Russo questioned the internship requirement at a roundtable in December, and shortly afterward the school’s president said students could have their internships appear on official transcripts without receiving or paying for credits.

The offer means little to Russo, who, like others with internship course requirements, must find a replacement class to graduate.

“I want to finish, but I’m not paying tuition for this,” said Russo, who sat out the spring semester in protest. “We’re not human beings, just cash for the university.”

Cleveland State Provost Jianping Zhu said the school is reviewing its course offerings and examining whether there is adequate faculty involvement in internship courses.

“Students need to feel that faculty mentors are interacting with them so they can learn to integrate their internship experience with their studies in the classroom,” Zhu said.

More universities are similarly recognizing internships without offering, or charging for, credit. Other schools are raising money to fund unpaid internships for students in need, and some colleges are exploring programs that let students split their time between classes and short-term work.

At Seton Hall, Katherine Wolchko, a rising senior in the diplomacy program, has resolved to keep fighting the school’s internship policy, even though she can opt out.

“The practice is financially exploitative, deeply biased against socioeconomically disadvantaged students,” she said. “Students shouldn’t pay for a service that the school doesn’t provide, and we shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege to work.”