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USC's Internship Policy Is Threatening Its Students' Futures

Christian Patterson |
December 4, 2012 | 1:16 a.m. PST


Cogdogblock, Creative Commons
Cogdogblock, Creative Commons
When I was applying to college during my senior year of high school, the University of Southern California was basically the land of milk and honey.

I applied to almost a dozen schools and I was accepted into most of them, but what made USC so unique were the opportunities it presented. USC had programs that other schools didn’t have, it had strong professors, facilities and a slew of other features that made choosing between USC and the other schools on my list a virtual a no-brainer.

Having completed three semesters at this Southern California oasis, I can say that I have not been disappointed. I’ve gotten involved in amazing programs and built lasting relationships with excellent professors. USC has proven to be everything I hoped it would be. There is one area, though, where the university has dropped the ball and where it is seriously hampering the future success of many of its students. That area is internships.

Interning is one of the most important things students can do, whether one is pursuing a professional degree or not. Internships provide valuable experience that will look good on a resume. They give students direction by allowing them to get a look inside of fields that they’re interested in. Most importantly, they help students build contacts in the real-world – an incredibly important feature considering that a high GPA from a top 25 school is no guarantee of a job in this economy.

No one wants to hire the journalism student who has never been inside of a professional newsroom. The communications major who has never had to make a professional phone call or organize events will probably have a long job search in front of them. The engineer whose most impressive experience is a science fair is likely to experience similar difficulty.

USC recognizes the importance of internships, which is why they have set up a career center to help students with resumes, cover letters, and finding work experiences. The only issue is that USC forces students to pay an arm and a leg to pursue some of these opportunities. In order to prevent interns from being exploited as free labor, the State of California requires that interns either be paid or receive course credit for their work. This means that in order for a USC student to legally have an unpaid summer internship they must pay the University of Southern California no less than $1,360.

That’s $1,360 to receive no classroom instruction, no lectures from the university and to not use USC’s facilities. The fee also only covers one unit of credit; if you wanted to receive credit that actually helped you graduate faster (and therefore of actual use to you), your fees would quadruple to $5,440, or at least double to $2,760. Add to these fees the cost of housing for three months (because over half of USC’s students aren’t from Southern California and would most likely have to pay to stay in the area) and the cost of transportation, and it becomes pretty clear that these fees are prohibitive for a large number of students.

Sure, there are programs within the school that help students cover the exorbitant cost of interning. For example, the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics provides summer scholarships to students interning in the political realm. However these programs are few and far between and students in fields that aren’t eligible for these opportunities are SOL.

According to an excellent set of numbers compiled by Slate Magazine in 2006: “52 percent of magazine internships, 54 percent of politics and public-policy internships, 62 percent of TV internships, and 71 percent of radio internships are unpaid.” That number has likely only gone up as college and interning have become more popular.

While these statistics only cover a narrow subset of fields, it should give some indication as to the situation in which a large number of USC students find themselves when looking to intern over the summer. I still remember the difficult conversations I had with my parents last spring when we had to seriously consider turning down my dream internship because of the added cost demanded by USC.

I understand that the university doesn’t want to give away free units of credit, but the simple compromise seems to be charging students a lower rate for internship credit than for a normal summer class. After all, what resources is the university expending for a student to get up and go to work in the morning? The idea of paying to work seems odd in and of itself, but if students have to do it, at least make the fees reasonable.

Summer internships are an excellent opportunity for students to bolster their job marketability without forcing their grades to suffer. It should be easy for industrious and ambitious students to go out and gain this kind of real-world experience. It is a shame that a university that prides itself on preparing its students for their careers would so limit their work opportunities.

Reach Columnist Christian Patterson here; follow him here.



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