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Get the Most Value From Your College Experience With Co-op Programs

Cooperative education adds so much value to your college education, your future career, and your wallet! Here's what to know about college co-op programs.

Everyone knows there’s more to college than what happens in the classroom. In fact, many experiences outside of class not only add variety to college life but also bring long-term value. That can certainly be the case with cooperative education (co-op) programs. Co-op gives students the chance to gain significant real-life work experience while still in school. “Cooperative education is a transformational, high-impact learning experience in which students are invited to explore their passions and sense of purpose in the world,” says Luisa Bieri, Associate Professor of Cooperative Education at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “It allows undergraduates to make direct linkages between their studies and professional pathways beyond college.” If you’re interested in pursuing one of these unique opportunities in college, here’s what you should know about cooperative education.

More than an internship

A co-op experience should not be confused with an internship, which tends to be completed during summer or on a part-time basis and for which students may or may not get paid. Instead, a co-op position tends to involve a full-time commitment. Instead of balancing college classes with work responsibilities, students typically work every day for a period of weeks or months through an arrangement made between an employer and their school before returning to their normal academic schedule. In the process, they’re paid like any other employee.

Related: What's the Difference Between Co-ops and Internships?

Co-op by major

The fields covered by cooperative education vary, with STEM majors among the most common. At New York Institute of Technology, co-op is available to undergrads in Computer Science, Information Technology, Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Construction Engineering. "The co-op option allows you to have real job experience in your college major," says Peter Goldsmith, who manages NYIT's co-op track. "This approach allows you to find out more about your field of study and see how your classroom courses fit into a work environment. You can also see if the company where you complete your co-op is one you would want to work for upon graduating, and the company sees if you’re fit for them as well.”

Career benefits of co-op

This kind of exposure can also be helpful in building a career track record to catch the attention of other prospective employers. “There’s no substitute for real-world experience,” says Philip Coniglio, founding Director of the co-op program at Hofstra University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science. “Today more than ever before, companies are looking for students who have put in the time and effort to get work experience before they graduate.” He’s found that students almost always find the experience valuable, including those who end up in a different type of career later. “Better to spend six months recognizing what you don’t want and adjust before graduation than to figure it out when you’re already in the workforce,” Coniglio notes. “There’s also a better opportunity to develop long-term mentorships with experienced coworkers and showcase your skills for future employment.”

While gaining work experience may be the primary benefit of co-op programs, the chance to earn money is also a plus. While pay rates vary, they often exceed those of typical part-time jobs. At NYIT, for example, co-op students earn between $20–$25 an hour. As a bonus, the experience gained can mean that following graduation, students with co-op experience qualify for higher salaries than grads without similar work experience.

Related: Experiential Learning: The Key to Great Post-College Jobs

Real college co-op experiences

Cooperative education is a popular choice at Clemson University, which has one of the nation's largest co-op programs, according to Director Dr. Jeffrey Neal. Over 1,000 Clemson students currently participate, with the majority of participants majoring in Engineering. Neal explains that through this program, students get a more comprehensive experience than with a typical internship. "Each co-op student’s experience is monitored for evidence of learning and developed by a member of the co-op staff, and a high-impact learning experience is expected," he says. "All co-op assignments are paid, and students earn a substantial income while participating in the program." The structure of the program also requires employers and professors to stay in tune with what should be covered so students get the maximum benefit. This includes regular interaction between program staff and host companies to ensure students are doing educationally meaningful work.  

In the process, students benefit from the chance to experience what it’s really like to fill a job role they might want to pursue later. "More than anything, participating in a co-op program offers students the opportunity to ‘test drive’ their chosen career field," says Dr. Richard Robles, a Career Education Professor and Program Director of Graduate Co-op at the University of Cincinnati—the global birthplace of cooperative education. As an Engineering student, for example, you’ll have the chance to apply what you learned in classes to real-world engineering problems. "Working in a co-op position for multiple terms allows you to think about realistic expectations of what you want in a job, a work environment, and/or a company after you graduate,” says Dr. Robles. A video for incoming first-year students at UC offers a brief look at what to expect from their co-op experience.

Jayda Lewis, a Bioengineering major at Hofstra, enjoyed her co-op experience at a biotechnology company. Her work included microfluidics, mechanical tasks such as soldering and assembling, and cutting-edge technologies using 3D software. She also picked up practical tips on communication, professional dress, networking, and presenting in a meeting. “The people you work with are there to teach you and leave room for you to make mistakes,” she says. “This is the place to get your first working experience.”

Getting started with co-op             

For prospective co-op students as well as those already enrolled, a great source of information is your school's career services office. For undergraduates wanting to learn more, professors in your major department can point you in the right direction. To pursue this opportunity, you’ll need to apply with a résumé, and a personal interview may be required. Before pursuing cooperative education, Coniglio suggests gaining related experience—that might mean a summer internship or working with a professor on a research project. “Companies want to see that type of experience before considering you for a co-op position,” he says, adding that these are the best things to do before pursuing a program:

  • Research companies before applying
  • Have a well-written résumé (reviewed by a career advisor)
  • Practice interviewing
  • Show up professionally dressed
  • Bring enthusiasm and confidence

At NYIT and Hofstra, students complete a preliminary course before obtaining a co-op assignment. The course helps students acquire the tools for gaining a co-op position and develop strategies for success while on the job. At Antioch, students take an online class while they undertake a co-op assignment. In this class, students not only document their work but also reflect on their experiences. “Their reflections invite students to make connections to the skills and knowledge they’re developing as well as to broader personal, professional, and educational goals,” Bieri says. 

Related: How to Find a College With the Best Experiential Learning Opportunities

All things considered, cooperative education is well worth considering in college, according to students like Lewis. “I would 100% recommend doing a co-op,” she says. “It looks good on your résumé, you have real experience, and it will make you stand out from other candidates.”

Ready to find a school that offers a great co-op program? Check out this list of Schools With Lots of Cooperative Education Options.

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