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The What, Why and Where of College Co-Op Programs

Lara Poulios January 16, 2020

I’m a College Planning Consultant at Estrela Consulting and the mom to two boys that attend Northeastern University, a college that has fully embraced the idea of “co-op,” which is short for cooperative education. 

The concept of co-ops was invented over a century ago at the University of Cincinnati.  This pioneering approach to education integrates standard classroom instruction with real-world work experiences and has since become a model used by many colleges throughout the country. Having watched my oldest son go through the process, I am sold on the benefits of this unique educational experience. Through both good and bad co-op jobs, he learned what work settings best suited him, and just as importantly, what he was not looking for in a future employer. He also gained valuable connections within his industry and has an impressive resume, both crucial assets as he begins his post-graduation job search.

THE WHAT, WHY AND WHERE OF COLLEGE CO-OP PROGRAMSA highlight of my son's Sony Music co-op: bringing Khalid to Northeastern University for a surprise visit with his of whom is me!

What is a Co-op?

In the traditional sense, a co-op is a full-time work experience in the student’s field of study.  The student does not take classes while working full-time, and instead alternates classroom and work semesters. The student takes lessons learned in the classroom and applies them in real-world situations, and then alternately takes what they’ve learned in the workplace back to the classroom.  Co-ops are supervised, usually paid, and involve self-assessments or reports filed with an academic advisor at the college. Co-ops are generally done for a semester, but there are many variations on the standard co-op model, including part-time co-op positions and summer co-ops.

Why Complete a Co-op?

Co-ops provide students with hands-on work experience in their field before they graduate, providing valuable insight into what skills are needed to succeed in their career.  They also learn the process for obtaining a job in their field – preparing a resume, interviewing, and how to conduct themselves professionally in a workplace.  Most colleges that offer a co-op model prepare students for this experience with a preparatory class that covers these essential skills. Students graduate with one to five unique jobs on their resume, increasing their employability in the workforce.  They also gain valuable knowledge about the type of company they hope to work for and the possible career paths that may be available to them.

What’s the Difference Between a Co-op and an Internship?

These terms are often used interchangeably, but in general, co-ops are paid, full-time jobs that last between three and six months.  Internships can be paid or unpaid and are part-time positions that happen while the student is taking classes.  Both types of work are beneficial, but schools that promote the co-op model suggest that the full-time experience of a co-op allows a student to immerse themselves in their field and engage in more in-depth tasks.

Things to Consider Before Selecting a Co-op Education

While co-ops can provide essential work skills and experience that give them an edge in the job market after graduation, it may not be the right model for every student.  Since co-ops take place off campus, a student will not have the traditional experience of eight consecutive semesters in a classroom on campus. This can create something of a “revolving door” situation where students may have to work a bit harder to maintain friendships and stay connected.  They will also have the added stress of lining up employment opportunities and possibly locating alternate housing if the co-op isn’t near university housing. Finally, depending on the number and length of the co-ops, students may take five years to graduate instead of four.

What Colleges Offer a Co-op?

The integration of work experience and education is finding its way into an increasing number of colleges.  Many schools have well-established programs, such as the University of Cincinnati, Northeastern University, and Drexel University, to name a few.  Other colleges with growing programs include Rochester Institute of Technology, Purdue University, Georgia Tech, and Elon University.  

At some colleges, co-ops are a standard part of the curriculum.  At others, it is an optional component. If a student is interested in exploring this option for their college years, they should ask about the availability of co-ops as they develop their college list.  Co-ops offer a student the ability to explore their major field, sample employer types, and develop valuable employment skills that can give them an edge over their peers after graduation.  

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Tagged: careers, internship, Northeastern, Cincinnati, co-op

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