Summer court battles place internships under extra scrutiny

Tribune file photo
Tribune file photo

Max Hess began work at midnight for the local news station, WTMJ-TV, during the fall semester of his sophomore year. Every Wednesday from 12 a.m. to 9 a.m., Hess would tweak graphics, write stories and assist with live shots and other odd jobs for producers. After working all night, Hess would come home and crash into bed just two hours before class started.

And he did it all for free.

Hess, now a senior in the College of Communication, was an intern—one of thousands across the country working without pay to gain experience, contacts and the start of a career. Hess had five unpaid internships in broadcast media during his time at Marquette, receiving academic credit in lieu of pay for each one.

“I go into internships that are unpaid knowing that they are unpaid, not looking for any compensation,” Hess said. “My compensation is more educational than anything else. You can’t put a value on that sort of experience.”

According to a 2010 survey, 72 percent of Marquette’s seniors reported completing a practicum, internship, field experience, co-op or clinical assignment.

At the national level, the National Association of Colleges & Employers reported that 63 percent of graduating seniors in 2013 had internship experience, the highest percentage in the survey’s six year run. Of these internships, nearly half were unpaid.

In recent months, unpaid internships, particularly in the for-profit sector, have sparked a heated debate among companies and universities about the legality, morality and advantages of allowing students to work for free.


This June, Federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III ruled in favor of two interns seeking pay for their work on the film “Black Swan.” Pauley’s ruling found that the production company, Fox Searchlight Pictures, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage provision in its refusal to pay its interns.

In the wake of the ruling, a rush of similar lawsuits emerged from unpaid interns, largely in the entertainment and media industries. Notable names faced with legal battles include the gossip site Gawker, fashion house Donna Karen International, talk show host Charlie Rose, publisher of the “New Yorker” Condé Nast and rapper P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment.

Paul Secunda, a professor at Marquette’s law school with an expertise in labor law, said the essence of these cases focused on defining the role of an intern at for-profit firms.

“Basically what (the cases have) focused on is whether or not you are doing work as an intern that a regular employee would be doing,” Secunda said.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, all employees must be paid for their time through a salary or hourly wage. Companies have avoided this provision by classifying interns as volunteers or trainees.

To specify what constitutes a trainee, the Department of Labor set six standards for a position to be legally unpaid at for-profit companies—with an exemption for public institutions and non-profits.

According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship must resemble an educational environment, be for the benefit of the intern and cannot include a promised permanent position upon completion. The intern must also not displace a regular employee or do work that will immediately benefit the employer.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, about 48 percent of internships were unpaid for the national class of 2013. A little more than one third of these positions took place in the private, for-profit sector and were therefore subject to the trainee standards. The recent ruling has brought a renewed focus on whether these positions can legally remain unpaid.

“I would think that this is a shot across the bow for other companies, what happened to Fox in these lawsuits,” Secunda said. “They better think about what the job description is and make sure they are within the perimeters with their interns. If nothing else, it will slow them down.”


Marquette’s colleges of Arts & Sciences, Communication, Engineering and Business Administration all offer internships for credit. During the 2012-2013 academic year, more than 580 students took an internship, based on enrollment in classes marked as internships or containing the word internship in the title.

This number does not include co-ops, nursing clinicals or student teaching assignments required by the Colleges of Engineering, Health Sciences and Education, which so far have not come under the same legal scrutiny as unpaid internships nationally.

Marquette is responsible for overseeing that internships have an academic component in order to be awarded credit, according to Andrew Brodzeller, associate director of university communication at Marquette.

“It is up to the organization that provides the internship to assure that the opportunity does not violate labor laws, including requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Brodzeller said in an email.

Brodzeller said Marquette ensures internships are educational by requiring a certain workload and contact hours for each position. Many colleges also require students to turn in written assignments to demonstrate the value of their work.

“Each college is responsible for approving whether an internship experience meets these expectations,” Brodzeller said.

About 15 percent of internships sponsored by the College of Business Administration were unpaid last year, according to Karen Rinehart, faculty advisor at Marquette’s Business Career Center.

In the College of Communication, about half of the internships for credit were compensated according to the college’s internship coordinator, Sheena Carey. Carey said the number of paid internships in the College of Communication is up from about ten percent in recent years.

Internships in the College of Arts & Sciences are overseen by individual departments within the college, and data for the entire school is not available regarding compensation rates.

Oftentimes companies require unpaid interns to take academic credit for the position to lend their program the educational legitimacy required by the Department of Labor.

For example, two internship opportunities listed on the College of Communication’s website read “all applicants must be of 3rd year status and able to receive college credit for the internship” and “this internship is unpaid, but may be eligible for college credits.” These disclaimers are typical in students’ search for internships.

Though the majority of universities still offer credit for unpaid positions, some institutions have refused to participate in the practice. The Marquette Law School, for example, does not award academic credit to unpaid internships with for-profit firms.

“If you’re talking about for-profit law firms, you’re talking about companies that are basically looking for employees,” said Secunda. “So in those cases it’s inappropriate to set up an academic internship.”

Both the Colleges of Business Administration and Communication confirmed they do not screen for compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act and allow both paid and unpaid internships at for-profit companies. Both colleges do, however, ensure that internships meet the schools’ standards by checking student task reports.

“To get credit students have to actually do work in an educational environment. They can’t simply be filing or making phone calls, though that can be part of it,” said Carey who was responsible for overseeing more than 200 communication internships last academic year. “They have to be doing something else as well that can make it an educational environment.”


The practice of requiring interns to get academic credit raises concerns that students will, in effect, have to pay tuition to work for free—in many cases paying the same tuition rate as classes taught by a full-time professor. For undergraduates at Marquette, for example, a three-credit internship this past summer cost $2,115 at full summer tuition.

In order to alleviate the cost of internships, the College of Communication offers students the option of a zero-credit internship that will allow them to be covered under the sponsorship of the school, without paying tuition. The school does, however, require both public relations and advertising majors to take three credits, or 180 work hours, of a for-credit internship in order to graduate.

In the College of Business Administration, most internships are three credits, while there is a zero-credit option used mostly for underclassmen who did not take the required prerequisites. In the College of Arts & Sciences, one to three credit internships are offered in the English, history, theology and multidisciplinary social sciences departments.

While some students may not like the added cost, others appreciate the opportunity to get credit for internships. Alice Ogles, a senior in the College of Business Administration, said she valued the opportunity to receive credit through her internship at J.P. Morgan this summer.

“It’s really nice in the sense that I don’t have to take another class and honestly I learned more in the internship than any class could have taught me,” Ogles said. “It’s also kind of nice to have a little lighter class load this semester from getting credit this summer.”

Universities across the country have made efforts to offer students the opportunity to enter competitive fields while avoiding financially burdening or exploiting students. The University of Richmond, for example, subsidizes its unpaid internships by granting 300 fellowships a year averaging $3,700 to students who accept non-compensated positions at for-profit organizations.


Along with the legal and financial concerns, unpaid internships have sparked protest on ethical grounds.

For example, interns categorized as volunteers are not protected by federal law from workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. Those Fair Labor Standards Act protections, like minimum wage law, apply only to official employees.

James Scotton, a former dean of Marquette’s College of Communication and associate professor of media law, said unpaid internships also raise concerns that industries will favor people from wealthy families, impacting diversity in areas like journalism and entertainment and hurting economic mobility.

“If you’re struggling with money, you cannot afford to take an unpaid internship,” Scotton said. “Someone else who comes from a family that has enough money to supply the student with spending money can afford that internship. They don’t need that money to stay in school.”

Scotton also voiced concerns that unpaid internships have taken the place of paid entry-level positions formerly available to recent graduates.

“Why should I hire someone if I can get you for free?” Scotton said. “Students are finding out that at some places, they’re not willing to hire their unpaid interns.”

Despite these ethical claims, some students consider internships the best way to prepare students for the working world and are wary of limiting opportunities for students to learn.

“I think having an internship is important,” said Sarah McClanahan, a junior in the College of Communication, who took an unpaid public relations internship to fulfill a three-credit requirement for her major.

“It’s a good way to prevent kids from being sent out into the work force with nothing on their resume and having an overwhelming experience,” McClanahan said. “I know my internships helped me a lot.”

Kristin Adler, assistant director of Marquette’s Career Services Center, finds internships and similar learning experiences to be a valuable part of preparing for the job market.

“As a career services center we would hope that all of our students could get paid for a job opportunity simply because our time is worth money,” Adler said. “But we know that some fields are not going to be able to pay.”

Adler recalled taking an unpaid internship when she was in college studying advertising at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“I knew I needed experience, so I was able to have a job on the side to make a little bit of money and financially I kind of just figured it out,” Adler said. “You know, my husband works in radio. Radio people are not going to get paid. So is that OK? You know, we’re not here to judge.”

Though the Career Services Center does not screen its internship opportunities for Department of Labor guidelines, the center does check for legitimacy from each listing.

“If we refused to post unpaid positions, we could be limiting student choice for gaining career-related experience,” Adler said in an email. “However, we are advocates of experience for pay and coach employers to offer equitable pay to our students.”


Though the debate continues over the proper role of unpaid internships at universities and in business, many students still consider an internship essential to compete in today’s job market.

“Honestly if you don’t have an internship people won’t take you seriously or consider you in the job market,” said Ogles. “You have to put yourself out there because it’s really competitive right now, and you might have a hard time ever finding a job without experience.”

Still, others remain firm against students working without pay.

“I won’t assist a for-profit organization getting an intern,” Scotton said. “I don’t believe in it.”


The Marquette Tribune has signed up to help ProPublica, a Pulitzer-prize winning newsroom in New York, investigate the cost and quality of internships for academic credit across the United States.

As many of you surely know, internships can be invaluable when done well. You get the chance to learn different lessons from those taught in a classroom, and to build your professional network. Studies have shown that employers prefer to hire graduates who have completed internships during their academic career.

But getting academic credit for an internship doesn’t necessarily make it legal (or educational). As ProPublica has reported, some schools are sending students into unpaid internships that may not meet the federal government’s guidelines for when interns should be paid. Yet it’s difficult to spot violations, partly because almost every school, and even different majors within a school, has different requirements, policies and levels of oversight.

In an effort to bring transparency to this murky intersection of internships and higher education, ProPublica launched its Price of an Internship database, a tool that lets people compare the cost and relative quality of for-credit internships across different schools and majors. The kicker: they need students to help expand the number of schools and internship programs available.

The Tribune has signed up to help ProPublica verify internship information for at least three majors at Marquette University but you can help, too.

To join ProPublica’s effort, you can:

1- verify information about an internship program for your major
2- tell us about any missing internship courses for your major
3- or write a review about your own experience interning for credit

All the instructions you need to get started are on ProPublica’s website. This is an important project that affects anyone who has had an internship or is looking for one. We hope you’ll help!

By Blair Hickman, ProPublica, and Erin Heffernan, The Marquette Tribune