Put yourself in the shoes of an employer making an internship hire. Columbia students are just a subway ride away, which means they can work year-round, not just in the summers. Students don’t usually have Friday classes, so they’ll be at the internship for at least one full day each week. And most importantly, Columbia—like all universities—can provide students with college credit for doing internships.
That’s right. If you’re a Columbia student and you do an internship, Columbia will give you “college credit” for it. This credit, known as “R-credit,” has little in common with the credits you’ll get for passing classes. It appears on your transcript, but it doesn’t actually count toward your degree. It’s basically meaningless.
To receive this credit, all you need to is fill out a simple form, get your internship supervisor to sign it, and submit it to the Center for Student Advising. It would be easy to get this credit fraudulently, but who would want to? It’s meaningless.
So why does Columbia offer meaningless credit for pursuing internships? Because employers don’t want to pay their interns minimum wage. In the U.S., of course, all employers are required to pay their employees at least minimum wage, with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is internships.
The Department of Labor does not consider internships to be actual jobs, so interns are not subject to labor laws, including the minimum wage. To distinguish internships from jobs, the DOL has a worksheet with six criteria. None of the criteria mention college credit, though one criterion is that the internship be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.”
Employers have (wrongly) interpreted this to mean that interns who receive college credit are not technically “employees” subject to labor law. This means employers don’t have to pay them minimum wage—or anything at all. (That’s not the only labor law that employers can flout. Last week, a New York court ruled that an unpaid intern could not sue her employer for sexual harassment, since she was not technically an employee.)
For employers, college credit seems like a get-out-of-labor-law-free card. And so, many will only hire interns who can receive college credit, even meaningless “R-credit.” If Columbia refused to provide students with this fig leaf of credit for unpaid internships, then Columbia students would almost never be hired for unpaid internships.
Fortunately, Columbia does provide students with credit for internship, so that they have a very easy time getting internships, particularly unpaid internships. Unfortunately, while most Columbia students have no trouble getting unpaid internships, only a privileged subset of Columbians can actually afford to do unpaid internships.
Students who need to support themselves by working jobs that pay at least minimum wage generally cannot afford to take unpaid internships. Granted, it’s not impossible. Students could intern part-time, work part-time for actual pay, and somehow fit in academics and extracurriculars. They could apply for a “work-exemption” grant. Both Barnard and Columbia—to their credit—offer a number of these grants each year, which provide stipends to students pursuing unpaid internships and so theoretically make it possible for students who couldn’t otherwise afford an unpaid internship to take one.
Generally speaking, the students who can afford to take unpaid internships are those who come from relatively privileged backgrounds, who can count on parental support while they work for free.
Whether these unpaid internships benefit students is an open question.
At least one national study has shown that students who had unpaid internships were no more likely to get a job after college than students who did not do any internships.
On the other hand, a remarkably uncritical lead story in The Eye last month profiled a number of recent alums who worked unpaid internships and then, as a result, received wonderful entry-level media jobs. So maybe on the Columbia level, unpaid internships can be helpful.
If unpaid internships do provide certain benefits—experience, contacts, clips—that make it easier for students to get jobs after college, then it’s a problem that only a certain class of students can afford to pursue them.
Eventually, the system of unpaid internships will come to an end, probably once some courts rule in favor of (former) unpaid interns who sue for back pay.
Until then, though, Columbia students will continue to have unequal access to the majority of internships in the city. Internships can be an important part of the Columbia experience—but only for certain Columbians.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in anthropology and the creator of Who Pays Interns?, a website that tracks how much media companies pay their interns.
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