The Value of Cooperative Education
I worked around the career development world for several years before becoming an admissions advisor. Among the areas that I had to understand was cooperative education. Under cooperative education, students alternate periods of school and full-time work for one or more years of college. Cooperative education, aka ‘co-op’. is voluntary at some colleges, mandatory at others. I have profiled schools that take co-op quite seriously. These include Drexel, Northeastern and RIT. Northeastern’s popularity among college-bound seniors has risen dramatically in recent years because so many majors have co-ops.
Cooperative education programs help college students build an impressive resume that might help them get a better job after graduation. But it is not the best option for students in every major. The value of cooperative education depends on several things, so read on!
Costs: Co-op schools can be more expensive
Students who choose a school with a major investment in co-op pay tuition only for the time that they are in classes. However, at most schools, Rochester Institute of Technology being one exception, students pay fees while they are on co-op. These fees are in place to maintain the student’s enrollment and for the student to continue to use services on campus. The IRS needs to know that a co-op student is a student first, a working person second.
More on costs: you might owe more money at graduation
The college students who will benefit the most from a five-year cooperative education program will be those who can avoid borrowing too much.If you’re doing co-op through a school that charges low tuition or awarded you a generous scholarship consider yourself doubly blessed. You might graduate with significant work experience as well as little debt.
Dependent students can borrow only $31,000 in Federal Stafford Loans towards an undergraduate degree. If the student borrowers the maximum allowed for each year up through their fourth year, that totals up to $27,000 ($5,500 for a freshman, $6,500 for a sophomore, $7,500 each year for the junior and senior years). The student can only borrow $4,000 more for the fifth year.
If you do co-op it can take more time to finish your degree
Drexel, Purdue and Northeastern, to name three examples, offer students the option of doing co-op over four years or five. The majority choose to go five years to get the additional income as well as additional experience. If the student changed their major s/he might also need five years to graduate while still working in co-op assignments.
Cooperative education works best when you have a ‘progressive resume’
It helps for students to know what they are interested in before they are placed in their first full-time position through co-op. This way the assignments can be structured to offer greater challenges and more responsibility as the student learns more in the classroom and gets closer to completing their degree. An employer likes to see progressive experience on a resume, even for an entry-level hire.
It also helps to know how well students are paid, or if they are not paid.
Engineering, Computer Science, Chemistry and Accounting co-op assignments, as examples, can pay exceptionally well, far more than a college student would earn working part-time and summers. Ideally, wages earned during co-op should meet, hopefully exceed, costs for room and board for the entire school year. This includes the time that you will be on co-op as well as the time you are not.
Also keep in mind: employers have not been pressured to raise wages for college students in co-ops though colleges have raised tuition every year. When wage increases are lower than tuition increases you have to find a way to make up the difference in costs.
Ask about the school calendar
Co-op programs vary as to how long you will work full time. A 10-week quarter goes by faster than it does in a 15 or 16-week semester. But it gives students a chance to gain more work experience as well as take more classes.
I have always been an advocate for experiential learning, including cooperative education. But it takes some research and a little math to compare the benefits from school to school. I envy the bright Georgia resident at Georgia Tech and the bright California resident who goes to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.. But if you have to cover most or all of college costs, you might really pay for a co-op based degree.
What will your workplace be?
There’s a lot of uncertainty among employers as to whether their full-time and co-op employees will be able to work on site. Part of a co-op experience is the interactions that you have with experienced professionals. Working in a virtual setting takes away many of those interactions.
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