Pay to work: Internships for college credit can be a hefty bill for students

Frequently, students will excitedly come to me – new internships in hand – and ask about receiving college credit for their experience.

They're certainly right to be excited: I think that getting on-the-job experience in the field of one's choice is a great way to meet a portion of the academic requirements toward college graduation.

At that point, unfortunately, I frequently have to veer into the dreaded role of Potential Buzz-Kill. Never a fun position ... especially on a college campus.

The reality is when internships count as academic credit, it means that they literally are counted as a college course, which means that they carry tuition – which means they cost money. At some colleges, this can amount to hundreds of dollars per credit hour ... so unless it is planned carefully to fit into one's college plan, a three-credit-hour internship that is unpaid could cost upward of $1,000 if done for credit. This is a factor that students don't always consider right away.

Complicating the issue is that some employers don't simply offer credit to interns for their experience – they require that students receive credit. For some employers, it's a way to try to compel students to complete an internship – an incentive to get them to show up, try hard, and complete what they've signed on for.

"I definitely prefer that interns receive credit because it shows their dedication,'' says Ilyse Strongin Bombicino, a principal with the public relations firm Ripple Public Relations in suburban Chicago who has worked with dozens of interns. "So many times, college students just go through the motions of an internship because they want it on their resume. When they are embarking on an internship for college credit, they have a purpose, a drive, and are determined to get the most out of the internship.

"In most cases, an intern receiving college credit has someone to answer to at the end of their internship and they have to report on the experience,'' Bombicino said. "That reporting alone reinforces the experience they had and the knowledge they obtained. As the 'employer,' it makes you feel a part of the intern's education and growth, with the hopes that the internship helps to shape their thoughts on their future. An internship for credit makes for a more driven intern.''

In some cases, when college credit becomes a requirement, employers can seem bent on protecting themselves – not, in fact, benefiting an intern. Awarding college credit for an unpaid internship allows a company to make the argument that the intern is gaining something of concrete value from the experience.

As an article last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, employers might look to for-credit internships as potential protection from labor rules and from liability. The article also details the widely varying differences between employers' requirements, credit-wise, and schools' responses.

In my own experiences, some employers want to see a letter from a student's school verifying that the internship and the student are eligible for credit. Some want both student and school to sign off on their own paperwork. And one employer was satisfied only when presented with a copy of a student's schedule that included the internship-for-credit.

Colleges and universities have responded in a wide variety of ways to employers' demands, as the Chronicle story illustrates. Some have evaluated internships on a case by case basis. Some refuse to accommodate, insisting that internships simply are not college classes and shouldn't be worth academic credit. Some have developed alternate programs, such as the Berklee College of Music's certificate program for internships (cited in the Chronicle story), which is offered through its Office of Experiential Learning.

My experience tells me that the best approach, not to sound too milquetoast-y, is somewhere in the middle. I outright disagree with those who say internships should simply not qualify for college credit. My main problem with this line of thinking is that hands-on training in a field, where students can learn the why and how of a workplace, is an invaluable component of higher education, whose aim – in a nutshell – is to prepare students for that workplace.

However, when employers compel students to do internships for credit, with no wiggle room in their schedules, they often don't realize they might be pricing students out of the experience, or adding an additional financial burden for students – sometimes for credits they do not need. If a college allows internships to count toward graduation, they count as a specific type of credit – often a specific type of elective credit – that a student might already have fulfilled, students thus might be put into a position of working toward a duplicative end, credit-wise.

Students at Columbia College Chicago, where I work, are lucky to be situated in a metropolitan area, where internships might be incorporated year-round into a student's college plans. Students at schools in regions without as many venues to choose from, or without easy access to internship locations, might – depending on a school's requirements -- be relegated to taking internship credits in the summer even if they hadn't planned to take summer school – an added expense for which they might not have budgeted.

If students, college counselors and parents start talking about or even planning early for the possibility of internships down the road, they can chart a course of action. But employers who compel credit should consider carefully the implications for the student, as well as the reasons behind the policy.

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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