First tried in 1906, co-op programs blend paid work experience with conventional classes. Universities provide students with the opportunity to get course credit (and pay) for doing work for real companies on real projects related to their major. These lucrative “field apprenticeships” may last as long as 3 semesters.
The idea may be 100+ years old, but it’s needed now more than ever. New technologies, fluid workplaces, the pressures of globalization – they’re all creating a demand for stronger on-the-job learning during school. But how should you choose a co-op program? What are the benefits of participating in one? And how much money can you really earn as a student?
Universities provide students with the opportunity to get course credit (and pay) for doing work for real companies on real projects related to their major.
We’ve put together this guide to answer all your questions. Learn more about the different co-op models in circulation, get the skinny on financial implications for your education and compare options from top affordable co-op programs. You’ll also find a variety of resources, including co-op directories and co-op scholarships, that may help in your search.
What is a Co-op Program?
A co-op program incorporates paid professional career training into a typical degree. Students alternate their time in the classroom with significant time (e.g. three semesters) in a real workforce setting. In addition to earning an hourly wage for their work, many participants receive academic credit or a transcript notation when they have successfully completed their co-op program.
Co-ops are focused on training students for a career in their chosen major (e.g. IT, engineering, etc.). To that end, universities often partner with employers in government, industry, business, non-profits and more. Depending on the co-op job, students may end up working across the country or even overseas. However, each participant is usually supervised by a professional who has followed the same career path.
The overall goal of a co-op is to give students combinations of theory + practice and knowledge + experience. Participants go through a continuous cycle of learning, applying and reflecting on their education while they earn money to pay for college.
NOTE: You can get a sense of how these programs work in real life by comparing the features of Top Co-op Programs
What’s Cool About Co-Op Programs?
Unlike a generic part-time job or unpaid internship, a co-op program combines an hourly wage with solid job experience in your field. Depending on your major, you might be able to earn enough to cover your tuition costs.
- According to the NACE 2014 Internship & Co-op Survey, the average hourly wage for co-ops was $17.44 at the bachelor’s level and $25.04 at the master’s level. That’s not too shabby at 40 hours a week for six months.
- According to a Forbes 2012 article, co-op participants can earn up to $46,000 at Drexel University, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Cincinnati (i.e. around $15,000 per semester).
- 56.8% of employers made full-time offers to their co-op students (NACE 2014 Internship & Co-op Survey)
- After one year, almost 60% of co-op students who accepted a full-time job with their employer were still there (NACE 2014 Internship & Co-op Survey)
- Here’s the really good news. As of 2015, co-op earnings are not counted against a student’s eligibility for federal need-based aid. In other words, co-op earnings will not increase your estimated family contribution (EFC). For more detailed information, see our Tips on FAFSA and Troy Onink’s 2012 article in Forbes: Why College Co-Op Programs Totally Rock. In addition, if you provide more than 1/2 of the support (i.e. your annualized cost of college) from your earned income (i.e. co-op pay) only, you can avoid the dreaded “kiddie tax” (having to pay your parent’s higher tax rate on your own earnings during college).
Paper pushing is not part of the deal! In a strong co-op program, employers work closely with universities to ensure each job is tied to specific learning outcomes. That means you’ll be able to:
- Tackle real projects and work responsibilities
- Link classroom theory to actual practice
- Experiment with cutting edge equipment and technologies
- Deepen your 21st century vocational and technical skills
- Have an insider’s access to new industry developments
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A classroom is no substitute for on-the-ground experience. Co-ops can help you:
- Explore career goals and sharpen career objectives
- Receive a solid job offer from your co-op employer (~60% of co-op participants do)
- Begin at a higher starting salary and level of responsibility
- Advance faster up the career ladder
- Impress graduate school committees with your practical knowledge
- Acquire valuable leadership, communication and collaboration skills
- Network with professional mentors and valuable contacts
How do Co-Op Programs Work?
Alternating Semester/Full-Time Programs
Alternating semesters is the traditional model for many co-op programs. In this scenario, you alternate one semester or quarter of academic coursework with one semester or quarter of work-based learning until graduation. For example, in a 5-year co-op program, you would complete 3 semesters of work experience in a real business + regular classwork-based semesters in order to achieve your degree.
Your co-op job won’t usually begin until after your freshman year. To cut down on the time commitment, some schools will also use the summer as one of the “work semesters”.
Parallel Part-Time Programs
Instead of asking you to commit to alternating semesters of work, some co-op programs are run on a part-time parallel basis (20 hours or less weekly). This is very similar to a conventional part-time job. Each week, you would go to class and to work. However, in a co-op, the work is specifically tied to your field/major.
A more streamlined model is the one-semester co-op program. Here you are required to complete one full semester of work-based learning (e.g. in the summer) along with your degree. One-semester programs are usually called internships, but not always. Check with your school to see what’s on offer.
Co-op vs. Internship
Employers and schools don’t always distinguish between “internships” and “co-op programs” and sometimes use the words interchangeably. When in doubt, ask the university for clarification.
- Internships can be full-time or part-time, paid or unpaid. Many schools offer them as one-term work assignments during the school semester or over the summer. An internship may or may not carry academic credit.
- Co-ops provide students with paid work experiences on real-world projects. These are frequently intense, full-time jobs related to specific majors.
However… employers and schools don’t always distinguish between “internships” and “co-op programs” and sometimes use the words interchangeably. When in doubt, ask the university for clarification.
How to Choose a Co-Op Program
- Search through co-op directories and compare top co-op programs to create a shortlist of possibilities.
- Make sure the program is offered in your major.
- Figure out which co-op model the university uses. For the alternating semester model, schools may ask you to participate in a 5-year program.
- Decide whether you’d like to try working for different companies. Some schools, like Purdue, require you to work for the same employer throughout your co-program.
- Determine whether you wish to work locally, U.S. or internationally. Many universities partner with employers across the country.
- Ask the university’s co-op program coordinator about typical hourly pay and job placement rates after graduation.
- Talk to a college financial advisor about paying for college.
Top Affordable Schools Offering Co-Op Programs
To create this table, we combined the schools listed in U.S. News & World Report: Top Colleges for Internship, Co-op Programs 2014 with a much older list created by the National Commission for Cooperative Education. We then cross-checked this “master list” with our state rankings to come up with a shortlist of Top Affordable Schools.
- Berea College (Berea, KY) (Ranked #1 in Kentucky): Formalized in 1906, Berea’s Labor Program requires all students to work 10-15 hours per week in approved jobs while carrying a full academic course load. Instead of being based on credits, the program is founded on a competency-based model of learning. There are 1,500+ paid jobs available on campus, and community jobs in organizations such as Peacecraft, Save the Children Federation and the Berea Community School.
- Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) (Ranked #45 in New York): Cornell’s Engineering Cooperative Education Program is designed to provide junior-level undergraduates with paid, productive work experiences in leading-edge firms. A cumulative GPA of 2.7 or better and a declared engineering major by the end of one’s sophomore year are required to participate. The program, based on the alternating semester model, includes 2 summer sessions and is open to Computer Science majors.
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) (Ranked #5 in Georgia): Georgia Tech was the fourth school in the United States to offer a cooperative model of education (in 1912). Students in the five-year Undergrad Cooperative Education Program have the opportunity to take part in paid, practical work experiences directly related to their major. Semesters of on-campus study alternate with semesters of full-time employment. Participants typically earn $8,000-$10,000 per work term and pay no tuition for the 12-hour audit-credit co-op course.
- Purdue University – West Lafayette (West Lafayette, IN) (Ranked #6 in Indiana): Purdue’s Professional Practice Programs are intended to supply students with professional work and research experiences, both in the U.S. and abroad. Purdue offers not one, but three co-op models for students across its eight Colleges and Schools:
- 5-Session Co-Op: Begins after the freshman or sophomore year. 5 work sessions with the same employer.
- 3-Session Co-Op: Begins in the junior year. 3 work sessions with the same employer.
- Master’s Co-Op: Candidates must meet MS degree requirements in their discipline and have significant, graduate-level industrial experience in their profession to apply.
- University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH) (UC-Blue Ash ranked #6 in Ohio): The first university co-operative program was instituted at UC in 1906. Today, its Co-op Program is the largest program of any public institution in the U.S. It is based on the alternating semester model – participants alternate terms of paid, full-time work experience with full-time classes. Each student is assigned a co-op faculty member as a liaison. The program is a mandatory part of the degree requirements for the College of Engineering and Applied Science, the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning and Information Technology; these students also have the option to apply for UC’s International Co-op Program.
- University of Louisville (Louisville, KY) (Ranked #5 in Kentucky): UofL’s Speed School of Engineering’s Cooperative Education Program places 250+ students in “on-the-job” experiences every semester. Following the standard co-op model, participants start at the end of their sophomore year and work/study in alternating semesters. The final total is three semesters of full-time professional work experience (50 weeks). Students are classified as temporary employees and earn approximately $15-$16 per hour. Co-ops are available with employers across the country.
Resources to Check Out
Co-op Program Directories
Co-op Scholarship Programs
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