Co-op Education: An Old Idea for Current Hard Times

By Patricia Gorden Neill - May 20th, 2013

The Bad News

No matter what economic sector you look at, the job market in America today is downright discouraging. The economy has tanked and times are tough for everyone. Students graduate from college with an average of $27,000 in student loan debt and once out, they face the same dismal employment scene as all the other unemployed. Hundreds of people apply for one open service position. Where there used to be hundreds of job openings everywhere, the help wanted section of newspapers in every town are slim and getting slimmer all the time. Brand new Ph.D. students take jobs at coffee shops to pay at least a few of their bills, and grimace hopelessly when the thought of their student debts pop up. Many American students are opting to attend Canadian colleges as tuition is much lower than in the States. College tuitions have risen 500 percent over the last two decades, and it appears tuitions will keep going up about five percent a year for the near future.

How can you possibly afford to go to college when the economic situation looks so bleak? This question is keeping a lot of high school students and their parents awake at night considering ways they could pay for an increasingly expensive college education. These days, students and parents are doing everything they can to control college costs, while ensuring the students get the chance to go.

The Good News

One bright concept in higher education is gaining traction in 21st century America. It’s an old concept, introduced at the University of Cincinnati in 1906, but is once again drawing schools, employers and students to investigate this win-win-win higher education model. Co-operative education has students learning in classrooms, then applying that knowledge in a job matched to their educational goals. The cycle repeats as the student returns to the classroom, bringing in new ideas and concerns from the workplace in another semester of book learning, then returns to the job for another term of employment. The students gain hands-on skills in the real world and employers gain energetic, intelligent employees who are trained while they’re in college and hired post-graduation if the position works out.

The federal government funded co-operative education from 1965 with the Higher Education Act through 1992, when Congress ended the support. Today, corporations and businesses involved in cooperative education programs pay the students’ salaries while they’re working. In return the student applies constructive energy and cutting edge knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to the job. Payment varies among all the employers in the program, but students can earn between $7,000 to $10,000 on the low end of the scale to $18,000 and up on the high end. The student then pays tuition costs to college for academic credits earned while on the job.

Over 400 colleges and universities have cooperative education programs set up for a variety of majors, mostly engineering, science, accounting, finance and business. The cooperative education program is mandatory for certain majors at certain schools. For example, all majors in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati must complete a mandatory coop education program for their degree. For other majors, the coop program is available, but not mandatory for business and accounting majors. Even some liberal arts majors can get in on coop education programs, art history, psychology, English and language majors especially. Students getting degrees in the Hospitality sector can also merge their classroom knowledge with real world job skills in the coop program.

Cooperative education is a win-win opportunity for students worried about paying their hefty education bill. They can learn the history, background and theory of their field in the classroom, then obtain hands on skills in real world applications in a job closely aligned with their major. During their semesters of full time work, students earn money to help pay college costs. Future employers love the fact these students have significant work experience to go with their degree. The majority of coop students have jobs waiting for them when they graduate with their coop employer. With all the coop education opportunities and programs available, many students should be able to ease their financial burden by attending colleges with cooperative education programs, working and getting college credits at the same time.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cooperative Education

What’s the difference between internships and coop jobs?

An internship is usually a short term, one semester or summer involvement in the workplace. A coop position usually includes three or four semesters of workplace employment alternating with classroom learning. It means more involvement with the employer and advancement on the job as the student progresses. While internships can be paid or unpaid, coop employment is usually long term, full time and paid. Although internships and coop employment are similar, they are not the same thing, even if people use the terms interchangeably.

What are the benefits of the coop program for students and employers?

Students benefit by gaining real world experience that fits in with their educational goals, earning money to pay their college bills, developing responsibility, confidence and competence on the job and enhancing their marketability post graduation. Employers benefit by being able to evaluate student workers prior to having to hire them permanently, training student workers while they’re on the job and in school at the same time, increasing cost effectiveness of training and recruitment and by gaining whatever cutting edge knowledge the student has learned in the classroom.

What types of schools offer coop education?

Universities, colleges and community colleges can all have cooperative education programs. Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan runs a successful coop education program. At least two colleges in the University of Cincinnati participate in the university’s coop program. Over 400 colleges and universities in the U.S. have cooperative education programs, and the trend for coop education is growing stronger in a declining economy.

Do graduates of coop programs have an easier time finding jobs after college?

Yes, coop graduates do find it easier to get jobs after graduation. In fact, 95 percent of coop students have jobs waiting them at their coop employer. While no one can guarantee jobs after graduating from a coop program, there’s no doubt that large numbers of students who have participated in coop programs find jobs easily after college. Employers want the real world experience and the skills that go with it.

Does it take longer to graduate if I participate in the coop program?

It can, many colleges with cooperative education incorporate the terms of employment into the structure of the degree so that it takes a student five years instead of four to graduate. The student spends nearly a full year working full time for the employer, and is engaged in classroom studies the rest of the time. However, not all coop programs take five years as all can be structured differently.

Are all cooperative education programs the same?

No, there is quite a bit of variation in coop programs. Many programs are set up as alternate terms, first a semester of classroom study, then a semester of full time employment, switching back and forth until graduation. Community colleges use a parallel model where the student attends classes part of the day and works during the other part of the day. However the work schedule is arranged, coop students usually have gained a full year’s worth of real world job experience before graduation, which gives them a boost later on in the job market. The best coop programs provide activities that connect the work and the study segments of the program, including seminars, teachers visiting the workplace and perhaps employers visiting the classroom.

If I find a job off campus on my own, is that the same thing as the coop program?

No. While some coop education programs have students find work with employers on their own, and then sign up for the coop program, finding a job off campus on your own does not constitute coop experience. You must register in the program formally and sign contracts and agreements with both the college and the employer. While you’ll no doubt gain valuable workplace skills on your own in getting a job, the coop program arranges for college credit for coop employment and arranged terms of full time work along with terms of classroom study.

Are there international coop programs?

Yes, many schools are going global in their coop programs by arranging employment overseas for their students. International coop students take specialized language and culture classes related to the country of their employer, and agree to work five or six months straight overseas. International cooperative education programs are intense and competitive. At the University of Cincinnati’s international coop program, once students are admitted, they undertake hundreds of hours of language and cultural study before going overseas. The requirements are four years of academic study in their field, one year of work experience, usually gained through the regular coop program, and an intensive seminar course to prepare for the job overseas. Both students and employers in the international coop program benefit in a variety of ways.

International Cooperative Education (ICE) is an organization that has arranged overseas coop work experience for students since 1971. ICE partners with colleges and companies in setting up its programs. Since its inception, ICE has sent over 16,000 students to work in Europe, South America, Australia and Asia in job placements at everything from tiny family run businesses to major international corporations. Check with your school to see if it has an international coop program or the ICE Web page for further information.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.