Many recognize that the internships that many businesses offer to college students are rather unfortunate. Often the experience interns have is important but the whole structure of the thing is troublesome. Internships do not provide those participating with health care or other benefits. They’re often unpaid and never very well paid.

While colleges say they aim to provide students with internships that are valuable, the truth is that they’re often complicit in the exploitation of interns, writes Ross Perlin in an op-ed for the New York Times. According to the the piece:

The United States Department of Labor says an intern at a for-profit company may work without pay only when the program is similar to that offered in a vocational school, benefits the student, does not displace a regular employee and does not entitle the student to a job; in addition, the employer must derive “no immediate advantage” from the student’s work and both sides must agree that the student is not entitled to wages.

So, in short, it only makes sense if it’s kind of like a class, not really a job at all. Now this particular formula is odd (wait, so why would anyone gain from such an arrangement?) but the easiest way to establish that the internship isn’t actually unpaid labor is to offer college credit for the internship.

But colleges, it turns out, will offer internship credit for almost anything. Or they sort of do.
According to the article, colleges often have agreements with companies requiring that they fill out various forms, but they rarely monitor the quality of internships. Often colleges don’t even offer course credit at all, but merely require students to take classes while they have internships. College students, thus, essentially pay tuition money in order to work.

The author says that “cooperative education, in which students alternate between tightly integrated classroom time and paid work experience, represents a humane and pragmatic model.” Well sure, but it seems unlikely we’re going to get that model anytime soon.

Unpaid internships can be very valuable, low-risk ways for companies to find new talent and take care of unpleasant tasks. There’s little incentive for them to offer for them to offer something more complicated and risky. There’s also not much incentive for colleges, whose internship programs are managed by overworked staff in a variety of different offices and programs, to demand changes on their end.

Full disclosure: we have unpaid interns at the Washington Monthly.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer