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In light of recent cases against companies who take on unpaid interns, it may soon be less costly for an employer to forgo interns entirely than to hire one from Penn.

The Fair Labor Standards Act decrees that compensation is required where an employment relationship exists but makes exception for employer-intern relationships in which the intern is benefited educationally.

Fact Sheet #71, a guide to unpaid internships published by the United States Department of Labor based on the FLSA, states that “the more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience.”

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Many companies therefore require academic credit be granted for an unpaid internship in order to sidestep the issues now plaguing Fox Searchlight and Hearst Magazines, the former of which was ordered to back-pay former interns for labors deemed non-educational.

Philadelphia attorney Jared Jacobson said that he supported the ruling. “Most students wouldn’t come out and demand pay for their work,” he stated. “This is why we have [these] laws in the first place, to protect someone in a more vulnerable and less powerful position.”

For employers, then, the recent cases reaffirmed the importance of the FLSA— and could possibly make them more wary of Penn students, who have to jump through multiple administrative hoops before they are allowed to use fieldwork as the basis for an independent study credit.

The School of Nursing is the only undergraduate school that permits a normal course number to appear on a student’s transcript for fieldwork that is completed outside of Penn’s programs. The Wharton School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science both offer some form of credit in conjunction with fieldwork, but require an independent study proposal.

The College of Arts and Sciences offers only non-credit-bearing transcript notation.

Dean of the College Dennis DeTurck noted that in exceptional cases, students might also petition for independent study.

Still, DeTurck generally agreed with Penn’s stringent evaluations of credit-bearing fieldwork. “We’re a university and not a trade school,” he explained. “It’s not clear why academic credit is the right currency for remunerating somebody for doing work.”

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Several of Penn’s peer institutions have similar stances.

Stanford University, for instance, offers an independent study option for students that must be coordinated with a faculty advisor.

Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, said, “In the past the career center has tried to advocate for a more options for students seeking academic credit for their internships.”

Northwestern University, however, has developed a program called Chicago Field Studies to accommodate students who wish to intern for credit.

The program enables employers to take on interns with almost no risk of litigation. Karen Allen, associate director of Chicago Field Studies, explained that one of her roles is to educate employers about the FLSA.

“The role of the academy cannot be in isolation,” Allen noted. “We have a role in helping [employers] and they have a role in helping us give our students meaningful, substantive experiences.”

Like Penn and Stanford, however, Northwestern grants credit for the academic work completed in the seminar portion of the CFS program rather than for work done at the internship site.

Kathleen McCauley, associate dean for academic programs at the Nursing School, reiterated that “sufficient academic rigor” is an important part of granting credit at Penn.

Even for clinical experiences that are approved to bear regular course numbers, the didactic or classroom component must often be completed at Penn or under the supervision of a nursing faculty member.

“All are also approved by the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing since they are clinical courses,” McCauley explained.

DeTurck emphasized that internships and academic work don’t necessarily benefit from being combined.

“These are two different parts of [learning] and they probably shouldn’t come together,” he said.

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