Adding Value To Student Internships

Students who complain that they must pay colleges a lot of money so they can work as interns without pay certainly have a point. Just offering college credits for required internships is not enough.  Unless it provides a comprehensive academic program with its internship, a university is not doing its job.

It’s not fair to the students, who may go into debt to meet the

requirement. It is also not fair to the companies that offer internships as they work to comply with federal rules for interns.

However, a well-structured program that combines a campus academic program and puts the internship work into context can be incredibly valuable to both students and companies.

With employers looking for professional internships on a job applicant’s resume, universities have an obligation to provide a well-rounded course experience combining experiential and academic learning. Employers will tell you that a professional internship is crucial for students to get a career-track job after they graduate.  Many companies hire their former interns who have proven their worth and already know the company’s culture. 

Some employers say professional internships on a resume are as important as a college transcript because they show a student’s success in a professional setting.

In addition, university faculty can use the internship experiences to make connections between what the students are studying in the classroom and what they are learning on the job.

Just as a literature professor would not assign a novel without providing students with the context for understanding it, an internship professor should not just stick a student in a work experience without the help to succeed and understand what is happening.

The college/company partnership is essential for a successful internship.  Our research has found that internship supervisors play a significant role in the academic development of an intern. The company must assure that the supervisor is actively engaged in the intern’s work and is prepared to serve as a teacher and mentor. This relationship is highly beneficial for a student’s development. It is also good for the company and for the economy.

Therefore, it’s time for higher education to work with the Labor Department to find ways that internships can be offered without any fear of violating wage-and-hour regulations. 

In 2010, 13 college presidents wrote then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to say that any DOL enforcement against college-sponsored internships “could significantly erode employers’ willingness to provide valuable and sought-after opportunities for American college students.”

Admitting that some companies can exploit interns, the presidents said, “our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education.  We constantly monitor and reassess placements based on student feedback.”

While the Labor Department has done little to crack down on internships, especially those designed for academic credit, it has not come up with new guidelines. That leaves the concept in limbo.

As a result, some corporate attorneys are axing internships even though the companies know how valuable they are. Others are paying their interns, but are cutting back in the number and requiring higher qualifications.

For example, in our recent experience, a big bank that handles embassies and international organizations once hired American University interns to investigate for money laundering – a wonderful opportunity for our students to learn about international finance. Recently, the bank’s attorneys abruptly cancelled the internship.

This should not happen. The uncertainties that are causing some companies to cut back on internships must be eliminated while at the same time students must be protected from exploitation.

We know internships work. Our alumni tell us how internships gave direction to their careers. Our associated employers tell us how valuable the experience is to them.

More – not fewer – students need this opportunity.

Gil Klein, Diane Lowenthal and Jeff Sosland are professors and administrators at American University’s Washington Semester Program. 

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