There. I said it. More often than not, when you "employ" students as unpaid interns, you and the school facilitating this practice by offering credit are giving students the short end of the stick.
Companies say the students are picking up valuable experience, but how many unpaid internships are really worth a damn? Maybe if they were learning transferable, in high demand/short supply skills, but filing, photocopying, cold calling, getting coffee, answering client gopher requests, and answering phones do not fit into that category. Those are the things your well paid executive assistant would rather not do and so they get passed off to the free slave...er...student labor.
If you're going to help a student hone their PHP coding skills, then I'd have a different opinion--but funny enough, internships in computer science, where real skills are used and developed, are paid! It often seems to be the least interesting, most commoditized work that is most often unpaid.
The "getting free experience" argument doesn't hold water. It isn't free for the student when they have to use college credits to justify the fact that they weren't being paid. They're paying thousands of dollars for those college credits. The system that demands that they receive credit if they're working for free, designed to prevent actual slave labor, actually hurts the student. If the experience itself was actually worth it for its own sake, a student would be better off just getting the job on their resume and not having to pay all that money for the credit. In fact, if I were the student, it would be a better economic deal for me to offer to write a check to the company for my own minimum wage salary, because it will probably be cheaper than paying the school for the credit.
The bottom line is that if someone is work of any value to you, you should compensate them for it, even if its just minimum wage. If your organization can't afford the hundred bucks or so a week for 15-20 hours of work because it isn't worth it, then how good is this experience that the student gets? Plus, if your company can't afford $6 an hour labor, perhaps your business isn't economically viable--and that goes for startups, too. If it isn't a no-brainer to get that work done for six bucks an hour, I find it hard to believe that work will impress anyone when it's on a resume.
Companies make out like bandits with this practice. Not only do they get free labor, but they have no incentive to invest in the education of the student. If they don't stick around or don't like the work, who cares? Doesn't cost them anything! Give them an incentive to make sure the student is doing meaningful work.
You know who benefits pretty well from this practice, too? The school! Imagine if for every degree earned with 120 credits, 3 of those credits were earned by completing an internship. That represents a 2.5% reduction in the cost of faculty normally paid to teach them something useful in exchange for those 3 credits. Schools that allow 2 "for credit" internships are cutting their faculty overhead by 5%!
Two of the most common unpaid internships are in private client/high net worth asset management, and marketing/pr. Here are some alternatives for students to getting ripped off at unpaid internships in these fields:
Private client/high net worth asset management:
Lots of folks make a lot of money being entrusted to individuals' savings. Those people bring big trusted networks and financial expertice to the table--two things students completely lack and will lack for quite a while. A great marketing intern could have a big impact on a marketing campaign, but a private client intern isn't going anywhere near portfolios, so they basically get relegated to cold calling and "interacting with clients" (answering phones and being a gopher). Try getting a big investment banking internship with this on your resume.
Instead, open up a fake portfolio on Yahoo! Finance Or Google Finance, or a trading game site like UpDown. If you don't know what stocks to pick, just pick things you either know or that you might be interested in following (food companies, fashion, autos, Apple). Track the hell out of it. Download your daily gains and losses per stock to Excel. Enter the performance for the indexes--the S&P 500, the Dow, etc. Crunch the numbers. Open up a blog on blogspot or similar service with a fun domain name like TickerU or BullMarketMajor or something and write about your portfolio and the market EVERY DAY. Read and comment on the blogs of experienced investors like TraderMike, Howard Lindzon, and Information Arbitrage. Interview your favorite stock bloggers on your blog, even by email. If you do this a whole semester, you will not have wasted paying for the credits to be at a crappy internship. Instead, you could have taken another accounting, financial modeling, stats, or programming class and gained a lot better experience watching and interacting with the market everyday. Plus, you will have put your name out there as an innovative, ambitious self starter, making it much more likely you'll get hired for a better internship.
If you're going to volunteer to market anything, market yourself. Actually you're already an expert on a certain kind of marketing and you may not realize it. Youth marketing, both offline and online (especially on social networks), is a huge lucrative business. Brands and agencies are always looking for people who are up on the latest trends and who have keen insight into what works and what doesn't.
Every single student who has an interest in marketing and public relations should be blogging about how they get approached by marketing campaigns, brands they love, and trends they see. How about taking a poll at your school to find out what the top brands are and what people's associations with those brands are. You should use Twitter, too... You can use it to update your Facebook status messages, but moreover, you can use it to follow the updates of very high level marketing and PR folks.
If I was hiring someone to help create a digital presence and brand for myself, I'd want to see them be able to do it for themselves first. Learning how to do that by attending conferences (you can often go free as a student by volunteering), workshops, informational interviews could be a better learning experience than an unpaid internship.
If you're a college student (or anyone else) and you're worried about what you're going to do with your career, you should check out the site my company is working on, Path 101. Sign up for our e-mail list and we'll keep you posted on what we're doing to help you figure all this career stuff out.