The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools crack down on unpaid internships

Students walk through the Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Jaclyn Lambert could tell something was odd about her unpaid internship from the start. When she and a fellow intern showed up for their first official day at a small public relations firm in Tampa back in 2012, there were no other employees in the office.

During her internship, her boss wrote up a bio for her that stated she'd already graduated, making her appear like an employee. And while she was given plenty of relevant work to do while she was there — she helped run a media campaign for an electric vehicle trade show — it made her uncomfortable to think the firm was getting free labor while presenting her as an employee. "The whole time I was there, the learning experience was the fact that I had to do a job that he hired no one else to do."

After sharing her concerns with Kelli Burns, her adviser at the University of South Florida, Lambert ended up leaving the internship early. Burns, an associate professor who also supervises the internship program at USF's School of Mass Communications, did something too: Lambert's experience prompted her to write up new  guidelines warning companies not to pass off interns as employees. "You want to protect the student and not let the student be taken advantage of," she says.

Burns is among the growing number of career services officers and university intern supervisors who have been cracking down on unpaid internships. They have a range of motivations for doing so, from leveling the playing field for students who can't afford to work for free to improving the quality of internships, as a poor job market demands new graduates have more experience than ever. The series of class action suits brought against employers by unpaid interns and new legal rights for interns in some localities have also been factors, making career supervisors even more eager to show students and parents that universities have their back.

The increased scrutiny over unpaid internships in recent years has led employers to respond, too. Some, such as NBCUniversal, have begun paying their interns. While others, such as publisher Conde Nast, have ended their programs.

"If there's a trend, it would be in favor of paying the interns and keeping them as opposed to ending the program," says Garry Mathiason, a senior class action litigator at the employment law firm Littler Mendelson. Yet he also sees companies cutting back on the number of internships as a result of having to pay up.

For many big companies, however, the impact is somewhat limited. Unpaid internships tend to be a feature of the media, fashion and entertainment industries, as well as smaller employers and nonprofit or governmental organizations. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE),  an organization that counts both career services professionals and campus recruiters from large corporations as members, reports that some 98 percent of its employers say they pay their interns.

The other side of NACE's membership, however, has been grappling more with all the attention unpaid internships have been getting. Edwin Koc, NACE's director of strategic and foundation research, says the Conde Nast decision "sent a chill through some of the career services departments" at universities, who were concerned internship opportunities could dry up for their students. He adds that while there's no clear trend in how colleges are responding, "it is clearly top of mind" for campus career center leaders, who are now discussing changes that range from paying stipends to students who can't afford unpaid internships to providing academic credit in those cases for free.

Some are already taking action. New York University has taken steps in recent months to require that employers certify that their internships meet Department of Labor guidelines, a set of six criteria outlining what legally qualifies for an unpaid internship. In February, Columbia University announced it would no longer offer "registration credits," which did not count toward graduation, in exchange for unpaid internships.

And a little over a year ago, the career services department at Miami University in Ohio stopped posting unpaid internships at for-profit companies altogether. "We enforce that to the very best of our ability," says Mike Goldman, Miami's director of career services. "I think every career services office is policing opportunities more than ever."

Goldman has also recently introduced a limited number of stipends to students at Miami who accept unpaid internships at nonprofit organizations. The effort, which he says is one way of "ensuring that every student, irrespective of major or career goal, has equal access to career decisions," is something more colleges have begun adding or considering. A year ago, George Washington University started a career internship fund to provide $1000 to $3000 grants for students pursuing unpaid internships in the nonprofit or government sector.

Such stipends help to defray the costs not only of living expenses, but of the tuition many students must pay when they're seeking academic credit at the same time. Vanderbilt University began offering its own "summer internship subsidy" three years ago to help defray tuition costs. It also added more standardization and rigor to its program to help ensure students' experiences include more than merely gopher tasks. "The bottom line is we’re trying to provide a structure that’s worth the academic credit from Vanderbilt," says Cindy Funk, director of Vanderbilt's Center for Student Professional Development.

Meanwhile, UCLA, which has long offered stipends to students for unpaid internships, has modified its program to help support more students with financial hardships, says Kathy Sims, the director of UCLA's career center and the chair of NACE's advocacy committee. She says her office has also been more closely reviewing the opportunities it posts to students, warning employers their postings could go into a holding bin until they've been vetted as valid opportunities. Sims says the more "overt" attention being given to unpaid internships is not directly due to the lawsuits, but to the public attention they garnered. "We're wanting parents and students to know we're here to protect their career development," she says.

Not all colleges are as active in the effort. Mikey Franklin, co-founder of the Fair Pay Campaign, a group dedicated to ending unpaid internships, says that while many colleges have been responsive, including NYU, where he says his campaign worked with campus activists, some have been opposed. "Colleges have a very, very important role to play," he says.

As of now, it's unclear whether that "chill" on intern hiring felt in campus career centers is going to freeze up internship opportunities or not. A recent report by NACE shows that intern hiring is down slightly this year, falling 3.4 percent. The reason behind that drop isn't necessarily corporate panic over a spike in lawsuits, though. Kenneth Tsang, a research associate at NACE, says that the hiring dips track with the industries that aren't doing as well economically. Professional services, for instance, is hiring more interns, while bigger drops have been seen in manufacturing.

So are unpaid internships facing extinction? It's too soon to tell. Despite the growing scrutiny around them, the most recent numbers from NACE say unpaid gigs still make up roughly half all internships, a ratio that hasn't changed much in recent years. (Updated numbers for 2014 are expected within weeks.) One thing that does seem certain, however, is that career center leaders are likely to stay on the beat. Koc sees schools "becoming more directly involved in these internships to make sure the experiences have true educational merit. That may be the direction that the future holds for internships — and particularly for the unpaid ones."

Read also:

How to manage an intern

It's summer. You have interns. Are you paying them what you should?

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.