What is the cost of an unpaid internship?

illustration by Annette Allen

August Wade
Staff Columnist

I have paid for every internship credit hour I have taken, outside of the financial cost of the credit hours: I bought office clothes, transportation, parking, printing materials for work when necessary. All of which are minor, but necessary incurred costs that I didn’t mind paying because it was part of the internship experience, necessary components and experiences in preparing for office work, in my case.

When it comes to these incurred cost, some students might have to pay more, some less. At the core, however, is the fact that we all pay more for our internship credits than we do for regular course credits, despite our internships being, in near unanimity, off-campus, not led by VCU instructors.

When I sought the rationale behind being charged me for my internship credits, I ran into a wall; according to financial services, “The charge in question is accurate based on your enrollment into this additional credit hour. Even though it is an internship, it is still a registered course, being taken for academic credit, and has the charges posted associated with it.”

All of which is true, accurate and, in a way, fair. No one can dispute that a registered course should cost money; that’s the way education is funded. What is being disputed, however, is the cost: While the course is a registered course, it’s a registered course without a university-paid instructor or university infrastructure. I have no issue paying for what must be paid for, but I do have a right to know where the money is going.

When it comes to transparency, the university does a commendable job of answering questions promptly (if, albeit, in a roundabout way). For example, my communications with the university financial aid office and academic department on this matter took all of an hour in total. The administration has even provided the public with a detailed breakdown of where the revenue from tuition goes (77 percent going to instructional and student support, 13 percent going to institutional support and 10 percent going to building/ground maintenance) and what funds cannot be used for (housing, dining, parking, intercollegiate athletics or campus artwork).

When it comes to irregular courses, like a foreign language class, a lab or any other course that requires additional services or equipment, they even detail what the additional fees pay for. Why shouldn’t that be different for an internship?

An argument can be made that, because VCU processes my paperwork for the internship and requires that the student submit documentation of their work at the internship as well as a reflective paper (in the case of the English Department), all of which has to be reviewed by the university, there should be an instructional, institutional and student support fee. The cost of the fee, however, should not be drawn to the extent that it is equivalent to a registered course, staffed with instructional support, in an on-campus building with on-campus amenities.

I am sympathetic to the university’s financial conundrums and the strained status that the State enforces by making budget cuts. As a student with student loans and working multiple jobs, I have similar woes, but my solution hasn’t been harassing family members for change or requesting refunds because I wasn’t satisfied with a dollar menu burger.

More infuriating than the charges was the obfuscation and bureaucratic shrugging performed when VCU administration was pressed for the reasoning behind it:

“Charges for an internship are determined by your academic department. They set the fee structure and decide how an internship is translated into academic credit. Our office then posts charges accordingly. I recommend taking this up directly with your academic department.”

If the charges are determined by the academic department, why are all the academic departments, sans the School of Education (who charges more) and post that charge on the myTuition site, charging the same amount of all internships? Why isn’t this information (fee structure) transparently available?

Though initially perplexed that the official university financial aid office could not provide me with information on how a particular academic department determines charges for an internship when they themselves are charging me, I relented and sent my inquiry to my academic department.

There, I was informed that I was “not paying for the internship, per se, but for the credit hour.” This repetition wasn’t what I was looking for, but the last line of the correspondence cements this issue: “[You] are paying VCU to recognize it as academic credit.”

That’s the answer to “why am I paying for this (unpaid) internship.” It’s not about the facilities or support, it’s about paying VCU to see work experience as the equivalent to academic credit and, to be honest, I’m not sure how to feel about that. Is it wrong for the university to charge students the same price for an off-campus internship as a registered course credit hour, (which, upon completion, must be in-turn justified by the student via documentation and a brief paper for a grade)?

Internships are a joy and a pain. They’re a different type of course entirely because it’s actual, performative work without a core academic focus. Studying and assessments are replaced by inequivalent real life stressors. Topping that, it is almost always unpaid. The realization that you’re paying for those credits, paying to work without pay, adds a bit of a twist.

Furthermore and the primary lure of the internship is the perception of employability added to the student; it is common sense that an internship will increase your chances of getting a job after college. Right?

Maybe; there’s a wealth of information and statistics on the relationship between internships and employment outcomes and they conflict in specific ways.

Generally, students that intern have better chances at post-graduation employment. The Journal of Education for Business performed a fairly conclusive study (albeit focusing on the field of business, rather than a broad survey of various fields of study) and concluded that “Internship programs are positive and offer benefits to all parties involved: the student, the employer, and the institution” and that they “enhance the school reputation and are a vehicle to assist in economic development outreach. Support systems and programs need to be developed and cultivated to maintain larger internship programs.”

If the benefit can be so significant for the recipient, shouldn’t the access cost be lowered, thereby financially encouraging students in the endeavour? With the cost of higher education already prohibitive to a degree and the stress of future employment a large concern for students, the administration and student loan agencies, increasing the potential of student success allows for an overall recoupment.

Everyone wins (though the university’s ‘win’ is a little more complex; while they’ll have to bank on the future generosity of both the alumni and the partnering business and lose out of charging students for internship credit hours, they’ll have a higher graduation rate, higher job placement rate and more students graduating within four years (a directive of VCU’s Do the Math: 15/4” campaign, I might add).

No student should graduate without incorporating at least one internship experience into their curriculum. So essential are those experiences that, potentially prohibitive costs and all, we should allow ourselves that much. Requiring that students pay for an experience so essential and ungoverned by the official university, however, is a requirement that I cannot support.

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