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How Expensive Is Your College Internship? We Built an App for That

Editor's note: This project has been archived and is no longer active. See the full internships investigation archive here.

Today, we’re launching the beta version of a tool that aims to bring greater transparency to the role schools play in promoting unpaid internships. Our app lets you compare the cost and quality of internship courses at schools around the country – which until today, couldn’t be done.

The internship for academic credit has become standard at most colleges and universities, with 90 percent of schools offering credit for internships, according to a recent survey of career and internship professionals at U.S. colleges and universities.

When done well, these internships can be incredibly valuable. Employers prefer to hire students with relevant experience and students can learn skills in the workplace that can’t be taught in the classroom. But as we have reported, some schools are also sending students into unpaid internships that may not meet federal labor guidelines.

This led us to wonder: how expensive are unpaid internships when it comes to tuition costs? And what role do schools play in the internship experience?

Our database contains two key streams of information: tuition cost and policy information for individual internship courses at different schools (as verified with the help of college students) and reviews from students who’ve actually interned through these programs. 

Our initial research suggests that the tuition cost and quality of internship programs vary widely, sometimes even within a single school. At Bellarmine University, journalism majors could pay up to $8,724 in tuition for an internship, according to our current data. In contrast, journalism majors at the University of Nevada, Reno may only pay up to $1,206 in tuition.

At Notre Dame, the College of Arts and Letters doesn’t offer academic credit for paid  internships. But once they heard other schools at Notre Dame, like the Mendoza College of Business, allow students to take paid internships — and in light of heightened attention to the legal issues surrounding unpaid internships — they decided to revisit their policy, according to Assistant Dean and Associate Director of Office for Undergraduate Studies Ava Preacher.

“We’re beginning to think there’s no reason not to let them be paid,” Preacher said, clarifying that the decision is dependent on feedback from other university officials. “But then we’d have to evaluate whether to give them credit.”

For now, Notre Dame still leaves it up to individual departments to set guidelines for offering credit for paid internships, Internship Initiatives Program Director LoriAnn Edinborough wrote in an email.

In response to a recent survey of career and internship professionals, one person noted such inconsistencies make internship policies difficult to explain: “These are excellent questions. However, I do not know the answer as we have 65 internship advisors and many of them are doing different things depending on their department or college instructions (if they even have instructions).”

Our goal is to bring transparency to the under-scrutinized intersection of internships and higher education. For each internship course, we’ll answer questions including: What’s the maximum tuition cost? Does the school require an internship for graduation? Does the school permit – and in some cases require – unpaid internships? Are stipends available?

We’ll also display the most detailed internship policy available, which usually describes the course requirements (including coursework assigned, class meetings, on-site supervision and evaluations) and ask students to rate how their actual experience matched the school’s policy.

Last but not least, thanks to the volunteers who have helped us verify internship information for the schools in our beta app. We plan to add more majors and schools through next semester – and we need your help to do it. Find out all the ways you can get involved and help us build this database.

Casey McDermott contributed research to this post.

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