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Internships with Prestige... and 0$ Paychecks

Colleges like Northwestern collect tuition for off-campus experiences that don't meet federal guidelines for unpaid internships.
 
 
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Northwestern University’s journalism school boasts of its prowess in preparing students for prestigious careers — but it also serves as a pipeline for unpaid internships.

At Medill, students pay $15,040 in tuition for the privilege of working full-time jobs as unpaid interns. During their mandatory quarter in Journalism Residency, as it is known, students work full time at news organizations such as CNN Documentaries, Self and WGN Chicago. But instead of paying interns, employers pay Medill $1,250 for every student placed. In turn, students receive academic credit and a small stipend from the university for relocation expenses, ranging from $600 to $1,200. The most generous stipend amounts to just $2.72 an hour — far below the federal minimum wage.  

It’s an arrangement that even Medill is second-guessing. According to a July 30 email obtained by ProPublica, Medill has begun asking news organizations whether they would consider paying students minimum wage.

“As always, Medill and the University are careful to make sure that the program is an academic experience that meets U.S. Department of Labor regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” program coordinator Desiree Hanford wrote in an email to editors and internship coordinators at partner media companies.

“Some sites … have told Medill that their legal counsel require them to pay a student either in addition to the $1,250 or in lieu of the $1,250 to reflect the company’s own hiring policies that address this law,” Hanford wrote. ( see full document)

“With this backdrop, Medill would like to know whether you would be willing to pay a student who is doing a residency at your site and, if so, how much you would be willing to pay?,” Hanford asked. “Would you be willing to pay your state’s minimum wage?”

Jack Doppelt, Medill’s interim associate dean for journalism, said the program complies with Labor Department guidelines, but that the school is still considering whether to require employers to pay its students.

“For the purposes of the law, we’re comfortable,” Doppelt said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re comfortable with students not getting paid money.”

Alice Truong, a 2010 Medill graduate, wasn’t comfortable going unpaid, either. Truong said she didn’t have the finances to move to another city for three months on Medill’s internship stipend (which is usually $900). As a result, while some of her classmates had a list of 20 journalism residency options around the country, Truong’s financial constraints narrowed her choices to “two or three okay options” in the Chicago area.

“That alone was very frustrating, and I remember being very upset about this,” Truong said. “For most students at Northwestern, everything was within reach to them. I only had a handful of options.”

When Truong was in school, Medill also prohibited students from working other jobs during Journalism Residency, forcing Truong to give up her work-study job that quarter. Medill has  repealed that policy as of this academic year.

Truong ended up interning at her first choice site, the  RedEye, a Chicago-based daily tabloid. There, she wrote short pop culture articles and a few cover stories. She says her internship was a valuable experience that ultimately got her a paid internship and then a job at the  Wall Street Journal. But she was still frustrated by the way the program was structured.

“I was close to graduating, and there are so many money stressors around that period of time,” Truong said. “So having to go to a very expensive school to start with, and having to do an internship where I essentially provided free labor for credit, while the school was paid — that was hard to stomach.”