College students, advisers say unpaid internships often worth it

Worries in business world can limit academic opportunities

March 28, 2014 | 6:00 pm

Whether a student gets paid or gets academic credit for an internship during college varies by discipline and program, officials with Iowa’s three public universities said.

Despite recent lawsuits challenging unpaid internships that have garnered attention nationally, officials with the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa say they don’t discourage students from taking unpaid internships, because the experience can be a valuable trade-off.

“I would love to see every internship paid, but I know that’s not always possible,” said Laura Wilson, assistant director of Career Services at UNI. “In competitive fields, you’re always going to have students willing to work for free just so they can get that experience and build their resumes.”

Business impact

The recent lawsuits have more impact on employers than on the universities, school officials said, but there could be some trickle-down if fewer companies offer internships.

At a recent employer summit at UNI, a number of Iowa businesses said they won’t risk unpaid internships because of possible legal issues, Wilson said. Data from 2011-12 shows 73 percent of internships completed by UNI students were paid.

ISU and UI officials say it’s hard to measure how many of their students are paid as interns, because it varies so much by discipline. Some majors require internships, while others do not.

“I think people are being a lot more cautious now and being really thoughtful about whether or not they offer an unpaid internship,” said Allan Boettger, director of career services at the UI Pomerantz Career Center, which had 1,485 internship postings last year.

Boettger estimates more than half of UI undergraduates complete internships. He points to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers that shows 63 percent of graduating seniors in 2013 took part in an internship or cooperative assignment, the highest rate since they began tracking in 2007. Among those that completed internships in 2013, 52 percent were paid, according to the study.

Officials encourage internships of all kinds because of the benefits students reap: working with a mentor, training that could lead to job opportunities and career exploration, Boettger said.

One role the university or adviser plays is to make sure the internship offers an educational experience, officials said.

Among the six Department of Labor criteria that must be met for a for-profit entity to have unpaid interns is the requirement the internship be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment, and that the experience is “for the benefit of the intern.”

Students say in some cases the experience or prestige is worth not getting paid.

Student experiences

Allie Wright, 22, graduated from the UI in May with a journalism degree. During college she completed five internships, most unpaid. One was with USA Today, where she wrote stories, did research and worked with social media.

“It has paid off. I stayed in contact with them, still work on projects with them,” said Wright, from Adel. “It was a really good experience and I would do it again, even though I was tight on money for that summer.”

Alicia Kramme, 21, a UI senior in graphic design and journalism, completed an unpaid internship in high school but said that was easier since she was living with her parents in Cedar Rapids. She dropped out of an unpaid internship early on in college because it wasn’t financially possible for her.

Since then, she’s made sure to take only paid internships, like her job this summer in the Des Moines-based design hub for Gannett newspapers.

“A lot of my friends are taking a lot of really awesome opportunities in New York and Washington, D.C., but unfortunately a lot of those aren’t paid. They live on cereal and peanut butter and jellies all summer,” Kramme said. “It doesn’t really seem possible for me.”

The ISU engineering college is unusual in that it requires companies to pay its interns, said Joely Swenson, with ISU’s Engineering Career Services. She says about 75 percent of ISU engineering grads complete internships.

“It allows them to take that semester off without a financial burden,” she said.

That differs from many UI College of Law students who intern. American Bar Association rules say law students cannot be paid and get academic credit for the same experience.

The purpose of that rule is to keep the experience focused on professional development and learning, said Linda McGuire, associate dean for civic engagement in the law school. The college approves the assignments to make sure they’re structured around learning, she said, and also works to provide financial help for those students — more than $80,000 last summer, she said.

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