I like to joke that I came into college as an idealistic liberal arts student and came out with a job in big tech. One day I was taking classes in political theory, philosophy and English rhetoric. The next thing I knew all I cared about was coding and passing technical interviews.
I’m not alone in this experience. I have friends who started as compassionate pre-med students but became consultants; I know engineers who had high ambitions of saving the world but ended up with jobs in the military-industrial complex.
These radical career shifts aren’t an indictment on any individual. Rather, they’re a reflection of a higher education system that is increasingly concerned with making its graduates “employable.”
English rhetoric wasn’t going to pay, but I was fairly certain that learning to code was. It was a pragmatic decision, driven by the fact that I wasn’t willing to accept more economic uncertainty than I had to. And it was better to know I had in-demand skills than hope someone would recognize the value of my liberal arts education.
Rising student loan debt and a competitive entry-level job market demand that college students devote less time to learning for the sake of learning and more time to learning how to become employable. Educational accreditation emerged too, ensuring that students (mostly in master’s degree programs) had the right hands-on experience before entering a particular job market, such as specific courses engineering students need to take or requiring clinical experience for Masters of Public Health candidates.
Out of this comes the phenomenon of unpaid labor-as-coursework. Different departments at Michigan call it different names; in the School of Social Work, master’s students have to complete over 900 hours of “field work” to graduate. In the School of Information, graduating seniors spend a year working on “capstone projects” with external clients. Engineering students can apply to work on “industry-sponsored teams” through the College of Engineering’s Multidisciplinary Design Program.
All of these programs serve similar purposes: to give students hands-on experience in their fields of study.
Why? The PR-friendly answer is that experiential learning and client-based courses have been shown to improve students’ “application of theory in practice, motivation, management skills such as strategic planning, and professionalism.”
At the University of Michigan, however, these courses are often a waste of time at best and exploitative of undergraduate students at worst.
One recent alum, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, completed four client-based courses during her undergraduate and master’s degree programs at the School of Information. In this article, she’ll be referred to as Thea. In the School of Information, students in client-based courses work in teams and still meet regularly in the classroom with an instructor to learn about project management, consulting and professionalism.
Thea likened her experience to “busy work.”
“A lot of the time you’re doing work that has no impact for the company or the client that you’re working for,” she explained. “It’s really framed as ‘ooh you’re helping them do these things.’ But in reality, had we not done these projects it would not make any difference in the client’s life.”
While some students were struggling to see the value of experiential learning, others were essentially doing the jobs of full-time employees.
Engineering senior Mohnish Aggarwal, a computer science major, was interested in applying to CoE’s Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) and working with an industry-sponsored team. According to their website, the program “provides team-based, ‘learn by doing’ opportunities” so students can “apply what you learn in class to engineering design projects.”
Despite his initial interest, Aggarwal changed his mind when he learned of the program’s exploitative nature.
“For most companies (in MDP), you’re guaranteed nothing but (unpaid) work experience and college credit,” Aggarwal explained. “But these projects do benefit the companies monetarily, and the companies would otherwise need to hire a professional to complete them.”
Recent corporate partners include General Motors (2021 revenue $132 billion), Hyundai ($99 billion) and JP Morgan Chase ($121 billion). All of these companies could afford to pay students for their time but would certainly prefer not to have to. Instead of using the corporate world’s age-old tricks to extract cheap labor, the University serves up eager students to them under the guise of learning.
This isn’t to say that experiential learning isn’t without value, but there are few protections to ensure that students aren’t exploited. On a national level, unpaid internships have been regulated for years under the Fair Labor and Standards Act. Even if rules regarding unpaid internships often go unenforced, having books on the law can occasionally provide legal recourse for exploited students. At the very least, it incentivizes companies to meet some minimum standard for educational value.
It’s unclear if programs like MDP qualify as unpaid internships under Department of Labors (DOL) standards. Labor courts use the “primary beneficiary test” to determine if someone is an unpaid intern or an exploited employee. The test is vague and avoids setting hard criteria, and it’s unclear to what extent it applies to public institutions like the University. Two notables criteria that courts must consider are “the extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern” and “the extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework to the receipt of academic credit.”
MDP and UMSI’s client-based courses seem to exist in a gray area between these two standards. Both include classroom components, but the first standard — that students don’t do the work of full-time employees but, rather, receive some educational benefit — is stickier. UMSI students are most definitely not doing the work of full-time employees, but it’s unclear how much educational value is in their capstone projects.
MDP students’ experience, on the other hand, sounds a lot like they’re doing the work of full-time employees.
And the kicker: These students are paying the University for these opportunities. They’re paying to work for free, and it seems as though the law doesn’t care.
Thea, whose master’s degree is in Library and Archival Science within the School of Information, did one project for an archival collection that was primarily “social media analysis, which isn’t something that the master’s program is trained in at all.”
She spent hours examining how many likes and comments the archive’s Instagram account had.
“At the end, we just presented a document that was like ‘we saw that posts of scenery were most popular.’ What does that provide for this client that they couldn’t see by just looking at the Instagram themselves?” she said.
Thea had positive experiences in some of her client-based courses but knew she couldn’t count on UMSI for a consistent experience.
“I know so many people in my bachelor’s and master’s cohorts who have really enjoyed the projects and been able to flex what they’ve learned,” Thea said. “But then there have been so many on the other side of that. Either the project that they got was so easy that they were just kind of messing around most of the time or it was so out of their wheelhouse that they were so stressed,” she said.
Thea attributed students’ lackluster experience with experiential learning to UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office, which is responsible for client outreach and selection. Fundamentally, she thought the clients were too “hit or miss” to consistently provide high-quality experiences to students. UMSI provides a list of client requirements for prospective partners — notably absent is any information about UMSI’s curriculum or selecting projects that are appropriate for students.
Sarah, a second-year Masters of Social Work (MSW) student who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of academic retaliation, echoed similar concerns to Thea. Social work students typically complete over 900 hours of work at field placements in order to graduate in accordance with accreditation requirements set by the Council on Social Work Education.
Sarah said she was fortunate to have a high-quality placement, but acknowledged that others were not as lucky. Per the School of Social Work’s guidelines, fieldwork supervisors must meet with the students for at least one hour a week. But according to Sarah, many of her peers had even less time with their supervisors and were provided with little to no mentorship.
“Field placements are really, really uneven,” Sarah said. I’m getting a ton of education, it still sucks that (my placement) is making money on me seeing clients that I’m not getting a single penny for, but I feel like I’m getting a ton of attention from my supervisor,” she said. “I think so many people are neither making money, nor are they learning. I’m not making any money, but at least I’m learning.”
In fall 2020, the University’s MSW students founded the Payment for Placement (P4P) campaign, which advocates for students to be paid a stipend while they complete their fieldwork. According to a survey administered by P4P, just 12% of MSW students receive stipends during their field practicum and 74% of students said they had to work an additional job to cover expenses.
Still, no efforts are underway to ensure that MSW students are given high-quality fieldwork placements or paired with supervisors who will adequately support them.
Legally, field practicums are not considered unpaid internships and are not covered by the legal protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act. It’s unclear if the Department of Labor plans to update its guidelines to incorporate these new forms of unpaid student labor. The growth of unpaid labor-as-coursework has clearly outpaced the law.
In the meantime, the only organization with any power that even could watch out for these students is the University. Whether it’s laziness or indifference, the University has repeatedly failed to do its due diligence.
There’s another uneasy truth to the rise of unpaid labor-as-coursework: students want it. Whether it’s to provide hands-on training that students need to meet accreditation requirements or simply give students a leg up in the job market, colleges are seeing a massive demand for pre-professional education.
In an influential 2011 essay for The New Yorker, Louis Menand, a university professor and cultural critic, lays three different models of the purpose of higher education: a social sorting model, where college is about separating out the best and brightest in our society, a citizenship model, where adults are brought “into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste” and an emerging pre-professional model.
The pre-professional model holds that “advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation.”
If the pre-professional model was still emerging when Menand’s essay was published, it’s certainly accelerated now. The 2008 financial crisis drove thousands of students to choose “recession-resistant” majors such as health sciences, business and computer science.
And since 2009, “the average student loan debt balance has increased at more than twice the rate of the median household income.” Even students who aren’t particularly career-minded are being forced to prioritize making themselves employable by the economic strain of paying tuition.
Students recognize this central tension. Aggarwal said MDP “does provide value to students, mostly younger ones. For example, if you do a project with JP Morgan you’re guaranteed a (paid) internship with them. But I feel it can be exploitative, especially with companies who take free student labor and provide ‘experience’ as a takeaway.”
Ultimately, two central questions arise: How can colleges require client-based courses and field work without being exploitative? What is the right balance between educational value and gaining real world experience?
The first step is quality. The University needs to do more to ensure that students are paired with high quality experience and work with clients and supervisors who are invested in their success. If the University is requiring students to perform unpaid labor, then it’s their responsibility to ensure no one slips through the cracks.
The second step is choice. In other degree programs, such as the School of Environment and Sustainability, master’s students have the option to complete a master’s project with a client or write a thesis. A thesis option is available for master’s students in the School of Information, but not to undergraduate students. The University should allow students to complete a thesis or design their own project whenever possible. If students want to work with clients and have a pre-professional experience that’s their choice — but it shouldn’t be the only option.
In cases where students are required to complete field work, like MSW students, the University should grant students the agency to find placements that are right for them. The current placement system in the School of Social Work gives students no room to select placements that are paid or fit with their schedule.
“In the past, (MSW) students used to be able to apply directly to agencies or organizations that would bring them on as unpaid interns,” Sarah explained. “The School of Social Work changed their policy, and so now all students have to just send an application into the School of Social Work and we are not allowed to get in touch with independent agencies and nonprofits.”
But to a certain extent, the tension between students wanting hands-on learning without exploitation can’t be resolved by just reform. Even if the University institutes greater oversight, gives students more flexibility and creates stronger guidelines to ensure programs have educational value, the University will still be one of the wealthiest universities in the country. There is no reason it can’t pay students or waive tuition fees for courses in which students are required to do unpaid labor.
There’s no reason there has to be a tradeoff between experience, education and exploitation at all.
Not every class needs to be job training: Students still value the idea that college is a place for personal growth and academic exploration. But if the University is going to ask students to work — to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in tuition doing unpaid labor for clients — then it better give students a return on their investment.
Statement Correspondent Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.