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Pay Your Own Way With Cooperative Education

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Imagine graduating from college with more experience, more confidence, and even more money in the bank than the majority of your peers. For many students involved with cooperative education, this is their reality.

Professional cooperative education can provide the financial backing and lifetime opportunity to land your dream career before and after graduation. It throws you into the real world of work while you’re still a student, giving your career a huge boost and helping you develop a professional network that lasts for years. The earnings factor is significant, too. Many students involved with co-op earn up to $40,000 during their college career. When applied to tuition, that’s a big step toward graduating with little or no debt.

According to a 2006–2007 survey of more than 2,340 high school guidance counselors conducted by the National Commission for Cooperative Education (NCCE), only 13% understood the advantages students receive in transitioning from co-op to full-time career employment. Furthermore, according to the survey, many counselors often forgo discussing co-op with students and parents until the end of the college selection process, which is simply too late. So if you’re curious about co-op, speak up.

Perhaps one of the most disconcerting findings is that many counselors incorrectly believe that co-op delays the completion of a bachelor’s degree and the launch of a student’s professional career. Today, it takes an average of more than five years for most students to complete their degree programs. With co-op, students often work in professional positions during summer months and can still earn their degree in less than five years. (You may be wary of sacrificing your summer vacations for a co-op position, but think of it this way: if you plan on working anyway, you could be gaining experience that you can apply to your future career and earn more than you would walking the neighbors’ dogs.)

Students who engage in co-op during college also receive a unique and critically important opportunity to gauge whether or not a specific field of study is right for them. And even if you decide that the co-op position you chose just wasn’t for you, the experience you gained is still invaluable. Professionalism, interviewing tactics, resumé writing, and networking: these are skills you will need regardless of your field, and you will have encountered them all while on co-op.

While studying mechanical engineering at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, Patrick Atkinson worked with Irvine Automotive, a company that designs and manufactures interior trim for vehicle applications, during his co-op. After graduation and three years of co-op experience, he worked for Irvine as a mechanical engineer for several years, then earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees at Michigan State University.

Now, Dr. Atkinson serves as a professor of mechanical engineering, is the Director of Orthopedic Research at McLaren Regional Medical Center, and teaches as an assistant adjunct professor of surgery at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in East Lansing. He credits his career success in large part to his cooperative education experience.

The opportunity Dr. Atkinson received as an undergraduate working several months of the year in a professional engineering position gave him years of experience friends at other schools simply did not have when they graduated. “I was not interested in waiting until I was 23 to learn what engineers do,” he explains. “The best part is that I graduated at the same time as my friends but had some great experience by that time.” Atkinson also notes that co-op gave him a chance to make sure he was making the right career choice. “One of the biggest misconceptions about co-op is that it could delay graduation,” he says. “Although theory is critical to a student’s academic preparation, application of it is necessary to cement what is taught in class. The best education combines the two equally. Because I participated in a co-op program that put me to work at age 17 and provided the theory to everything I would do in my career, I was able to gain immeasurable experience, learn what I wanted to do, and make the right decisions to help me achieve the career I have today.”

Molly Hill, who also graduated from Kettering University, earning a B.S. in mechanical engineering, is now the research manager at Biomet Sports Medicine in Warsaw, Indiana. “At Biomet, I worked in the regulatory, hip and knee product development, biomaterials, and legal departments,” she says. “I was able to see projects through from conception to FDA clearance. I worked with engineers on surgical instrumentation design and conducted testing required for FDA approval of products. I even observed hip and knee replacement surgeries!”

Hill says working at Biomet gave her an overall view of the company and the engineering process. “These assignments allowed me to see where I fit best within engineering,” she explains. “Co-op gives [you] a better shot in the job market after graduation and helps you figure out what kind of career you want.”

More programs at more schools

The list of cooperative education schools in the United States continues to grow, and many students receive excellent wages, stipends for travel, and housing assistance during their co-op term. Faculty and staff at co-op institutions also have years of industry experience as well as lasting relationships with companies. Corporations seek out these faculty and staff to help develop new products, conduct sponsored research, and assist in the future development of the organization. In return, many schools gain additional cooperative education opportunities with companies as the institutions build their stable of positions for students.

Enhancing student and employer outcomes

The NCCE reports that students who engage in cooperative education gain the following advantages:

  • The ability to integrate classroom theory with workplace practice
  • Clarity about academic goals
  • Technological knowledge through the use of state-of-the-art equipment
  • Understanding of workplace cultures
  • Increased maturity and motivation
  • Productive and responsible citizenship skills

With cooperative education, you can get your hands on the tools you talk about in class and go to the laboratories you see in your textbooks. The co-op experience is an ideal complement to any college education and a great way to start your career.

Did you know...

Co-op facts and figures

> Co-op education programs let students work in positions that provide extensive experience in their chosen field, which results in higher starting salaries upon graduation.

> Earnings through co-op programs can range from $2,500-$14,000 a year; many students make as much as $40,000 during their entire college career.

> Currently, 50,000 companies offer co-op positions, including more than 80 of the Fortune 500’s top 100 firms.

> Typically, more than 60% of students accept permanent jobs from their co-op employers, and more than 95% secure professional employment upon graduation.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the National Commission for Cooperative Education publication The Best of Co-op (2006-2007 editions), from which much of the research in this article was derived.

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