I’ve grown to like the idea of workplace externships. Properly supervised, students can learn quite a bit from an externship. Today’s employers undeniably want that type of proven experience in new hires. Working at an externship also puts a student “on the spot” when an employer wants to hire. Externships won’t create jobs, but they may make a school’s graduates more competitive for the ones that exist.
On the other hand, I’m a bit queasy about charging students tuition while they work somewhere else for free. That seems like a negative wage, rather than a minimum one. When an externship constitutes just part of a student’s course load, and the school charges a flat fee for full-time students, the concern is small. It costs the school something to supervise the externship, the student’s marginal cost may be zero, and we don’t differentiate other credits based on the number of students in the class, the professor’s salary, or other cost factors.
But what about externships that consume an entire semester? Or ones that occur during the summer? For these externships, students pay high fees for the privilege of providing free workplace services. Here, as Northwestern’s Dean Dan Rodriguez suggests on PrawfsBlawg, tuition reductions might be appropriate.
Sure, the school will lose revenue from those students but the market is going to force us to reduce the cost of law school attendance in one way or another. We already subsidize lots of law school credits through scholarships. Reduced-cost externships are just another targeted means of reducing tuition–and it’s a mechanism that might prove quite attractive to students.
Suppose, for example, that a school told every student: “We provide one no-cost summer externship to any student who wants one. We’ll help you find a suitable placement, provide appropriate classroom instruction, and award up to 5 hours of credit–all with no tuition charge to you. You can take advantage of this externship opportunity after either your first or second year; joint degree candidates may use the opportunity during any semester of their degree program.”
To me, that seems like an attractive way to discount tuition. It tells prospective students that a school recognizes the importance of workplace experience and will help every student obtain that opportunity. A strong externship program can also complement a school’s career services office: the ties with externship organizations can yield regular placement opportunities. And alumni are likely workplace supervisors, solidifying their ties with the school.
How much would this cost a school? You would have to include (a) the costs of externship supervisors, including the time they would spend identifying good externship oppportunities; (b) any charges the central university would impose on these subsidized credits; and (c) forgone tuition from students who would use summer credits to graduate a semester early. In past years, relatively few students have used summer credits to graduate early, but that number may increase in coming years.
For full-semester externships the calculus is similar–except that the risk of forgone tuition is closer to certainty. Few students enjoy law school so much that they will stay for a seventh semester. Still, as pressures mount to reduce the cost and length of law school, a no- or reduced-cost externship semester could draw students to a particular law school.
What other costs and benefits do you see? Are there other ways to structure externships to serve students and keep down educational costs?