Current Federal Bureau of Labor standards make it possible for employers to legally avoid paying their interns IF they can arrange for those students to get academic credit for their work. Employers can’t give academic credit themselves. They have to find an institution of higher learning willing to do so.
Nonprofit employers are under somewhat less legal pressure than for-profit employers to provide an alternative to a wage or stipend, but many (like units within the University of Illinois) try to comply with that standard.
Different departments have different ways of understanding the relationship between unpaid internships and academic credit. In programs where the internship constitutes vital work experience that is directly relevant to a student’s course of study, an approved internship by itself can get academic credit. However, in many units (like the Department of English), academic credit requires a student to have an internship AND vomplete the work for a course.
Some departments offer summer internship coruses that make it possible for students to get credit for an academic internship. Many (like English) do not.
Here’s why departments are unwilling to give academic credit for an internship alone:
(1) while an internship may give a student valuable experience, that experience may not be consistent with or directly relevant to the kind of academic learning that goes on in that department — and assigning academic credit for “time served” devalues the academic credits that the department normally awards.
(2) it is often the case that the department faculty or staff who administer academic credit are not qualified to evaluate the student’s work — and the work supervisors who DO evaluate it are not qualified to evaluate whether it meets the disciplinary standards of the department.
(3) the exchange of academic credit for internship experience means the student’s tuition payments are subsidizing the employer offering the unpaid opportunity. This cost may be invisible during the school year — when an additional one to three credits will not increase a student’s tuition, but it is the reason why many departments do not offer summer internship courses.
(4) employers should pay the people working for them.
(5) universities should not be in the business of helping employers avoid labor costs.
If you locate an unpaid internship during the school year, and you want to get academic credit for it, you can do so through the English department. Our Internship Seminar is a one-credit, second-eight-week course offered every semester. It’s a mostly online course with weekly required assignments. The final exam (a mock interview) takes place face-to-face. Contact Kirstin Wilcox (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have an unpaid internship and wish to take the course.