By CHRISTOPHER YATES
The decision made by Columbia University on Feb. 21 to stop providing academic credit for internships has prompted discussion on campus regarding the various internship policies of Cornell colleges.
Columbia joined universities including Harvard, Yale and New York University last month in citing labor concerns as the impetus for policy shift, according to The Columbia Spectator.
Cornell currently has no university-wide policy regarding receiving academic credit for internships, but instead allows colleges to determine their own guidelines, according to Steve Shaum, assistant director of Career and Academic Support for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Cornell as a whole does not have a policy regarding internships for credit, but rather, it’s up to each individual school, and perhaps up to each individual department within that school,” Shaum said.
The decisions by Cornell’s peer institutions have prompted a review of internship policies by the College Career Directors, according to Rebecca Sparrow, executive director of Career Services.
“The topic of unpaid internships, in response to what [other colleges have] done, came up with the College Career Directors earlier this week, and we’re going to continue to discuss it to develop policies and procedures regarding what’s allowed to be posted on CCNet,” Sparrow said. “We’ll be looking at it with close scrutiny in the next couple of months.”
Though Career Services already has rules in place that require potential employers to include the unpaid nature of internships on the CCNet job title, there is still, Sparrow says, potential for labor concerns. One such concern is the unequal access to these internships by students who are economically disadvantaged, according to Sparrow.
“We have concerns about equal access, as some students can afford an unpaid internship and others cannot, which bars access to students to whole career paths if pressures are not placed on employers in those fields to pay for the work that people are doing,” Sparrow said.
“The situation can still be problematic because of the Department of Labor’s standards of what constitutes an internship and what constitutes work that ought to be paid,” Sparrow said.
Though predicting the outcome of these discussions is still “premature,” there is the possibility that Cornell colleges may see similar policy shifts regarding unpaid internships, Sparrow said.
“I can imagine changes happening here at Cornell, particularly because other schools are doing this, and I do think that there are certain industries that have essentially relied on free labor,” Sparrow said. “Any internship or work experience has an educational component, but if education is not the primary focus, then it’s work.”
Other Career Services administrators, however, said they feel that policy reform might be slow to catch on at Cornell, according to Shaum.
“For the entire University to adopt something like this, there would [have to] be many people to get on board, and I don’t think many faculty are aware of the legal ramifications behind internships — that is, how many companies are not following the policies set for a legitimate internship, especially if it’s unpaid,” Shaum said.
Though policy changes at Cornell are possible, one complicating factor in the University’s decision is the potential of curtailing student employment opportunities, according to Sparrow.
“One of the complications that would go into making such a decision is the impact on students who do want to advance in career fields [where internship experience is required],” Sparrow said. “Does it mean that they’re going to be graduating without the credentials that employers want to see?”
Though some Cornell colleges, including the College of Engineering, do not typically grant credits for internships, there are more focused alternatives, according to Mark Savage, director of Engineering Cooperative Education and Career Services.“I don’t think many faculty are aware of the legal ramifications behind internships — that is, how many companies are not following the policies set for a legitimate internship, especially if it’s unpaid.” — Steve Shaum
“Cooperative education was developed as a means to offer students practical work experience beyond the classroom in their field of technical study, Savage said. “Unlike internships, Co-ops are considered an academic program with specific institutional requirements and structured processes to monitor the student’s success.”
Despite the labor concerns, some students see credit-internships as being potentially beneficial.
“I feel like credit-internships are a good alternative for people with low GPAs, since GPA boundaries might be less of an issue while unpaid,” Brittany Wun ’16 said.
Some students said they feel interns should have the option to accept credit or pay.
“Students should definitely be allowed to pick if they want to do internships for credit or if they want to be paid,” Annie Ding ’14 said.