But who decides whether those unpaid internships are legal or—to add another layer of complication—ethical? Most career centers leave it up to the student to determine whether an opportunity abides by the Labor Department's guidelines, but it often behooves students to accept internships even if the company or organization doesn't follow the letter of the law. "If a student makes any kind of trouble, saying this is unfair and illegal, [they] are jeopardizing the relationship [they] could have with that employer," says Tom Fitch, associate dean for Career Services & Employer Relations at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.
Some universities don't support internships that aren't paid. While Florida International University's College of Business Administration doesn't go that far, associate director of career management services John Nykolaiszyn says he does encourage employers to offer a paycheck if their internship doesn't meet Labor Department guidelines. Having paid opportunities is particularly important for students who work to support themselves while earning a degree, he says, and many of his students fall into that category. "They're working full time. They're going to school full time," he says. "They're hustling. They can't afford to [work for free]."
And yet, Nykolaiszyn acknowledges that it's easy for companies to skirt around the Labor Department's guidelines. "[The guidelines are] confusing," he says, especially the fourth point that prohibits the employer from gaining immediate advantage from the intern's contribution. "If you ... have an intern, of course [you] want to benefit from their work."
Of 20,000 graduating seniors who participated in a recent survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than half held an internship sometime during their college career, and half of those internships were paid. About 60 percent of students who did a paid internship in the for-profit sector received a job offer by graduation, while only 38 percent of students who'd participated in an unpaid internship in that sector had an offer by then.