What Are Cooperative Education Programs and How Do They Work?
The transition from school to work can be a challenge for students, and equally, gaining experience while studying is often tricky.
Academic study is often no longer enough in today's society, particularly for practical careers. Employers are looking for experienced recruits to join their business, not people who need hand-holding.
Cooperative education programs help fix this.
While learning, students can gain practical experience in a job relevant to their education, thus graduating as more well-rounded individuals.
What Is Cooperative Education?
A cooperative education program, often referred to as a 'co-op', is a partnership between a student, employer and college.
It provides students with the chance to gain paid on-the-job experience relevant to their course, in addition to class training. The paid experience gives the student academic points towards their qualification.
Co-op programs generally work by alternating the college semesters between working off-campus and attending lessons and lectures.
Cooperative-education-program students are still classed as full-time pupils, even when they are not on campus at semesters. Their work on location is regarded as learning and is integral to the course. This is important for tax purposes as it lowers the tax they pay.
What Are the Benefits of a Cooperative Education Program?
These programs are popular among those students who know specifically what they want to do in their career, and for employers who need staff with plenty of work experience.
Here are some top reasons why a cooperative education program could be a good choice:
On-the-job learning – One of the most common reasons why this program appeals to many students is because they get to learn the skills and trade of the job by performing them and solidifying their theoretical learning. As cooperative education programs are a partnership between employers and the college, the student can be assured the job postings will be with a reputable, industry-recognized company that will help them learn the right way.
Learning skills and industry insight – Studying the theory of a particular area is important but learning the skills that will enable a person to do the job is vital. Getting a good insight into the industry, its ethics and values, the type of people who work in it and common challenges is imperative to starting a working career strongly. By learning on the job, a fully qualified person will have plenty of knowledge and experience already when entering the industry.
Earning money as a student – Higher education is expensive. This is especially true for full-time courses, where there may be few opportunities to earn enough money to live on. Therefore, being paid as part of learning is another appealing factor of the cooperative education program. Students will be in full-time work for half of their college course, earning minimum wage, which allows them to save for the terms when they are studying on campus.
Another way to earn academic credit – Co-op schemes allow students to earn course credits through practical work experience, which is great because not everybody excels in theory or written work. The work placements will show a person’s practical skills and how they truly fare in the industry in an environment different from typical education. Therefore, those who excel more in practical rather than theoretical demonstrations of learning need not fall behind those more suited to traditional education.
Good for future employment – The cooperative education program carves a great path for future employment. Students have a chance to impress potential future employers and perhaps secure work fresh out of college. The program is also recognized by many other employers in the industry, so looks good on a resume.
Cooperative Education Programs vs Internships: What’s the Difference?
Gaining work experience while studying may sound a lot like an internship, but cooperative education programs differ in some key ways.
For a start, while many employers take on interns when they are studying for a degree, the internship is not part of the college or university course. It does not contribute towards any course credits.
In contrast, the job experience on a co-op course does. Therefore, you likely already have to be academically gifted to gain an internship, while a co-op program instead gives you an alternative way to improve your course grade.
Both internships and cooperative education programs work the job around the learning.
However, internships fit around learning by only being for a limited period, restricting the amount of growth that can happen with the employer.
Additionally, internships can be time-limited by the length of holidays or the hours in which the student is not studying.
In contrast, on a cooperative program, the work experience is part of the course and therefore is given equal weighting. Work experience and college learning take place on alternate terms. This means the on-the-job element lasts the length of the college course, allowing the student to develop and mature.
It also means the potential hours spent gaining work experience are not restricted by the hours spent in lectures.
What's more, an internship can be voluntary and unpaid, although there is a growing discussion regarding the ethics of unpaid internships. Many consider them exploitative and best avoided.
However, the co-op program will always pay at least minimum wage.
Finally, the companies students work for on co-op programs are always vetted by the college or university and often employ the students on a long-term basis.
Educational establishments do not need to have anything to do with the companies where students carry out their internships, and there is often no guarantee of a long-term career with the company after an internship.
Mandatory and Optional Co-op Programs
If the course you are applying to is a cooperative, the college will list it in the course details.
Some courses do not require the cooperative element; it is optional.
Students select if they'd like to join the co-op program to earn part of the credits for their course. Once they sign up for this program, they are committed to the program designation until graduation.
Some courses will state that it is mandatory to do the cooperative program, and in that case, the student will need to decide if that is the course for them before applying to it.
Read the course details carefully before you apply, like you would a job description, so there are no surprises when you get to college.
Applying to a Cooperative Education Program
The process for a cooperative program is slightly more complex than an academic-only course, but with preparation and research, it is not overwhelming and will gain you all the benefits discussed above.
If applying to register for the program, students need to do it before the start of the semester. The application deadlines are generally the same as a traditional academic course. Check the relevant college website to find out exact dates.
The registration process includes detailing basic information, such as name, address, experience, qualifications, employers you may want to work with and availability.
The co-op approval at the college will ensure that your information is all present and correct and that all requirements are met.
They will then contact you if your registration is approved and you will be invited to the next step.
Many of the programs require a person to attend a workshop before they sign up and complete some modules.
The student will have to apply to the employment part of the program in the same way as to a job – with a resume that includes qualifications, experience and skills. You are often encouraged to write a cover letter to accompany the resume.
There will also be an interview with the employer that students should prepare for.
It should be treated as any other job interview, and the individual is expected to dress and act professionally, answer questions on themselves and their background and ask any questions they may have.
Which Colleges Provide These Programs?
Here is a selection of the colleges that offer a cooperative education program.
Georgia Tech – The cooperative education program at Georgia Tech College has been listed as one of the top ten co-op programs in America, with more than 15,000 students completing the five-year course. All engineering students and many others can access it as an option in their degree. It is the largest optional co-op program in the US. All students in this program will earn between $8,000 and $10,000 per work term.
Bowling Green State University – This cooperative education program, available to those studying in Bowling Green State University's College of Technology, Architecture and Applied Engineering, requires students to secure the co-op themselves by contacting employers through the university's designated database. The university's careers center offers help and guidance, and all students are assigned a mentor. The students must work 40 hours per week for one semester and cannot be self-employed. They are compensated for their employment by the United States Department of Labor.
Central University Washington – The requirements for the educational program at this university are similar to others. Students must work 40 hours per week and need to have good academic skills. Additionally, the student needs to gain some of the course credits before the program starts. Co-op courses are available to students who have not yet declared a major, undergraduates with a major and graduate students.
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University – Students who are interested in a major in agriculture and animal science can register here to do so through their co-op program. This is a renowned university in the fields of agriculture and pre-veterinary studies, so this is a great opportunity for pupils to get that hands-on work experience whilst working.
University of Cincinnati – The birthplace of the cooperative education program, this university has 5,000 students on average each academic year taking part in their co-op program. The program is available to those majoring in engineering, architecture, art, information technology and human services. There is huge support from the university for these programs, and it works with 1,500 employers. Students are paid $2,000 per month when working full-time and they pay $465 per term to help cover program costs.
Cooperative education programs are used in many colleges and universities throughout the United States, particularly in subjects such as engineering, mechanics, technology and art.
The programs are ideal for students who benefit from lots of practical experience in their field and also those who cannot afford a full academic course.
It is a big commitment, often with a long application process. But it is recognized in a wide range of industries and can be a major lift up the ladder.