The Internship Rat Race: What Does it Say About Higher Ed?

Ross Perlin is only the latest to remind us that it’s tough out there for college student interns these days. As many as half of the for-profit sector interns from four-year colleges, according to Intern Bridge, will receive no compensation for their internships, and have few of the protections labor law requires. These unpaid internships frequently come with some kind of academic credit — often at the employers’ insistence, which helps allow them to keep the internships unpaid without running afoul of labor regulations. In some of these cases students not only aren’t paid, but they pay their schools to participate. (Disclosure: my employer, the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, does pay its undergraduate and legal interns.)

This reality, likely, is here to stay, if for no other reason than — like it or not — internship experience has become a de facto requirement in many fields. This is why college students flock even to the unpaid ones, which are quickly becoming the rule and not the exception in many fields. And undesirable as it is, this trend may bespeak deeper problems affecting the health of higher education. Indeed, it is likely no coincidence that the last several years have seen this become such an issue while at the same time colleges have faced an identity crisis of sorts, with pressure to model themselves more as four-year vocational schools focused on tangible outcomes and skill-building and less as havens of critical thinking and exploration with a premium on knowledge for its own sake.

The current economic climate has not helped, especially in public education, from which billions of dollars in public funding have vanished in recent years. The pressure is now greater than ever to bend higher education to meet perceived future economic needs, aligning with the increased trend of students choosing “career-oriented” programs over more traditional majors. All this Plato, Voltaire, Austen, Whitman — who needs it? How will this help students break into the 21st century job market? Partially as a result, the liberal arts spend more and more time defending their utility in nurturing the post-collegiate intellect.

This is not to say that we should all go back to the days of academic gowns and high teas at the faculty club. Nor is it to say that we should discourage people from pursuing skilled or trade professions. Those who want to be engineers should study engineering. America’s two-year colleges provide training, at low cost, for a variety of professions whose economic prospects are good.

The fact remains, however, that for the many students not going into these or similar professions, many of the skills employers will want from graduating college students are picked up from academic lectures, essays, and research papers, on subjects whose relevance may not be immediately apparent (and it is these liberal arts students, more frequently than not, to whom our educators and politicians refer when they invoke our college population as a single class). What’s more, students will find that these skills — such as the ability to argue on behalf of a belief not their own, or to speak and write critically and persuasively — aid them in a variety of professions.

Already, as FIRE’s years of protecting student free speech show, critical thinking is in short supply on college campuses when tensions arise. Students are continually conditioned to believe — through overzealous administrators, restrictive speech codes, and hair-trigger political correctness — that they don’t have to engage with ideas they find offensive, and that they can report “bad” ideas to administrators for adjudication. In this, colleges have done their students a great disservice before they’ve even had their first internship interview.

There will be job revolutions, to be sure, but for all the current century’s advancement I’d be willing to bet that the skills that got us through the last one will be pretty helpful in getting us through the next one. Allowing the exploitation of students by unscrupulous companies in the name of building 21st-century skills — another step in the academy’s de-emphasis of learning for learning’s sake — will only continue our students’ disengagement with the world, and make them that much less ready to tackle its challenges.

Peter Bonilla is the Assistant Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. The Views expressed in this column are his own.

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