Why some internships are unpaid and for-credit-only

what's the reasoning behind unpaid internships for credit only?One of the most common questions I hear from students applying for internships is why some employers require the experience be done for academic credit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've never heard of this issue coming up with paid internships. If an employer is paying a student, they generally don't seem to care whether an intern receives academic credit or not for the experience.

There's no simple answer, though, to this query. Some employers will say they want to make sure students give their all to an internship. If a student has academic credit at stake, and is going to receive a grade that will affect his or her grade point average, employers explain, he or she will work harder and be more responsible about their duties -- and put forth more of a professional effort. They are more likely to show up on time, less likely to call in sick (or, worse, simply not show up), more apt to get their work done to the best of their ability, and in general more concerned about doing their best in a job. They are more likely under these circumstances to see the experience as an investment in their future instead of simply a way to pass a semester or summer.

This isn't universal, of course. I've seen dozens of glowing employer evaluations for student interns who were not receiving academic credit. I've also heard -- albeit rarely -- of students performing unenthusiastically in internships for which they were receiving credit. But I understand employers' desire for students to have a stake in the outcome of their performance, so to speak.

Some internships require credit because of employers' concerns over the legality of having someone perform uncompensated work -- an issue that's being discussed and debated across the country and probably the world these days, both in lawyers' offices and online forums. Labor laws vary from state to state, and employers want to make sure that unpaid students are receiving something of value -- such as academic credit from their colleges -- in exchange for their work.

Sheila Solomon, recruitment editor for the Chicago Tribune, with whom I've worked frequently over the years, told me that the Tribune used to have both paid and unpaid internships, but now offers only paid internships. Their compensated internships required a great deal of experience -- such as a previous internship at a professional daily newspaper -- so unpaid internships-for-credit were a way to bring in more students to gain experience. Shrinking budgets also were taken into consideration. But when management changed, internships returned to a paid-only status, she said.

One complicating factor affecting internships for credit is that by the time students are ready to seek an internship, they might have fulfilled their academic requirements for the type of credit that internships fulfill. For instance, at Columbia College Chicago, where I've worked as an internship coordinator for more than three years, internships can count as college-wide elective credit.

Some internship applicants already have filled their college-wide elective needs in their first few semesters. So if they are required to take credit for an internship, they might have to add credit hours to their schedules that they technically do not need toward graduation. Potentially, this can mean extra tuition costs.

The combination of legal concerns on the part of employers and the desire for experience -- even unpaid experience -- on the part of students makes for a complicated situation, and unfortunately, cliched as it sounds, there's no easy solution.

One step to take toward reaching such a solution involves the simple-sounding suggestion of taking time to plan. With internships becoming part of the academic cultural vernacular, students, their parents and college advisers alike might want to talk about internships-for-credit as early as possible.

Structuring a student's college schedule to accommodate an eventual internship for credit can help cut down on the number of duplicated credits a student would have to take. This wouldn't be as easy for transfer students to make work, but for students who complete their education at one institution, reserving credits for possible internships later could be a money-saver.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com
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