Comprehensive Guide to Co-Op Colleges: Where Education Meets Practical Experience

college co-op programs

Comprehensive Guide to Co-Op Colleges: Where Education Meets Practical Experience

Published September 12, 2023 | Last Updated March 28th, 2024 at 07:21 am

college co-op programs

While work-study or your garden variety part-time job are some of the most traditional ways to make money in college, there’s another option that combines both academic rigor and practical, real-world experience.

Choosing a college with a co-op program can be the best of both worlds, giving students hands-on work experience to test out potential careers and apply their classroom learnings in the workforce.

What Are Co-Op Colleges?

Co-ops — or cooperative educational experiences — offer students the chance to earn income and academic credit for actual job experience during their undergraduate career.

Gaining hands-on experience at a co-op college before entering the workforce can have a positive domino effect when it comes to finding a future career, making it easier for students to get a job after college. There’s also a decent chance that the co-op company will recruit directly from co-op participants.

About 40% of co-op students received job offers in 2021-22, according to the 2023 Internship and Co-Op Report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. 

Even if your student’s co-op company doesn’t hire from your cohort pool, practical work experience can help them look appealing to employers hiring new grads, who often have little relevant work experience aside from internships.

Not so fast, you might be thinking. This all sounds good, but what’s the difference between a work-study job and a co-op? And why shouldn’t I scrap both and get an internship?

List of Co-Op Colleges

These colleges all have co-op programs for their students.

Road2College founder Debbie Schwartz shares her opinion of co-op colleges:

“I didn’t know much about co-op programs until my daughter was interested in them as part of her college search process. I remember visiting Northeastern with her and being so impressed with how much emphasis the school placed on understanding the needs of current employers and making sure the school curriculum met those needs.

Northeastern’s co-op program was by far what attracted my daughter to the school and made it her number one choice. She was lucky enough to be admitted.

She recently went through a few months of interviewing to find her first co-op opportunity. Just the experience of handling interviews, researching companies, and following-up with potential employers, was invaluable and taught skills you can’t learn in the classroom.

She’ll soon start her co-op, which will last for 6 months.

I’m strongly encouraging her to do three co-ops and take the full time to graduate in 5 years.

What better way to build work experience and test out jobs and industries you might be interested in before one graduates?”

Is a Co-Op the Same as Work-Study?

First, work-study jobs are usually campus-based. You might be an office assistant for one of the administrative departments, shelve books in a campus library, help run the campus convenience store, or water plants at the greenhouse (like me!)

These jobs don’t necessarily relate to the industry you might enter after college, and your boss is more likely to be understanding of the fact that you’re a student and school is your first priority (especially during midterms and finals).

Having a work-study job usually depends on you being a student as well. This means that if you leave school for a semester, you probably won’t be allowed to work that job anymore, even if you live nearby.

Second, having a work-study job is usually more about the money than getting work experience. It’s seen as a way to make ends meet or to have a little pocket change during your college years.

You might be given a big project, but that depends on your responsibilities, your department, and your supervisor.

Third, there are usually caps on the amount of time that you can work, and you’ll probably never work enough hours to be more than a part-time worker.

A co-op program is a little different.

During a co-op, you’re working directly with a company to gain real world experience while you’re in school. You might be working full-time or part-time, but you’ll have a job where other people are depending on you.

Some schools specify that you must still be enrolled in academic classes during the time of your co-op, while others expect you to alternate between fully academic semesters and semesters devoted to your co-op experience.

Unlike internships — where your chances of being paid may be less — co-op opportunities are paid, usually hourly.

Does Income From Co-Ops Impact Financial Aid?

At most schools, your co-op wages don’t count toward your expected family contribution (EFC), which means you won’t have to worry about paying more in tuition because you’re working.

Co-op earnings are considered regular earned income for tax purposes and are reported as earned income on the FAFSA. Also on the FAFSA is question 44f, which asks the student to report co-op earnings.

In the student income section of the EFC worksheet, co-op earnings are subtracted from total student income (line 34). So co-op earnings will not impact the EFC, but there is a record of the earnings and then the subtraction in the EFC formula.

(Note: Students do not pay FICA on work-study earnings, but they do on co-op earnings.)

Sometimes, co-ops specifically target STEM majors, although this depends on the school rather than the types of opportunities available, since plenty are available for students who are more business-oriented or pre professional-focused. 

What’s the Difference Between College Co-Op and Internship?

One of the major differences between co-op programs and internships is that co-ops tend to be full-time positions that take place over the course of an entire semester. Other differences include:

  • Internships generally cover fewer hours and are usually considered part-time positions.
  • Students typically don’t attend classes during the work portion of their co-op programs.
  • Co-op programs are usually vetted more thoroughly by the school than internships.

In fact, the school is usually more present in a co-op experience, whether this takes the form of offering specific opportunities, having students contact advisors to make sure they receive academic credit, or completing reflections on the overall experience.

Schools take this active role because they want students to learn the skills of the workplace, not fill their co-workers’ coffee orders.

Different Types of Co-Op College Programs

Despite their differences, some schools use the words internship and co-op interchangeably.

If you’re not sure which is which, try asking about the specific requirements of the program. That, however, requires knowing what a co-op opportunity usually involves.

How exactly do they work?

There are a few standard models that most colleges and universities follow. These include the alternating semester program, the full-time program, the part-time program, and the one-semester program.

In the alternating semester program, the student alternates one semester of academic coursework with the following semester of full-time co-op activity.

With the part time program, students work at their co-op part time as they might any other part-time or work study job.

One-semester programs require students to complete just one semester of a co-op program during the course of their academic career (this one is the most similar to traditional internship programs.)

Most universities plan for students to finish their degree and co-op experience in four years, but a few allow them to finish in five if they’d like to maximize the experience. In this case, students should be sure to pay attention to details when doing their research.

Sometimes, co-op programs count the summer as a semester, which means students may have to take academic classes during the summer to stay on track.

Further, some co-op programs require students to pay a program fee that may or may not be counted toward tuition.

Examples of Co-Op College Programs 

Here are a few examples of the co-op college programs out there:

Belmont University: At Belmont University, the Cooperative Internship Program is very similar to taking on an internship and getting credit for it. However, one must get approval from the university ahead of time and make sure it’s related to their academic program or after-college industry interests.

Cornell University: Cornell University’s co-op program is specifically targeted toward engineering students. The student is expected to use resources like the mid-program evaluation form and answer prompts that require reflection upon their experience. The co-op experience includes a full semester and a summer to form a substantive experience.

Drexel University: Drexel has many different co-op programs, all customized to fit the individual student’s course of study. The university boasts partnerships with companies in 32 states, 51 countries, and co-op employers, including many prestigious companies from Amazon to Vanguard.

Northeastern University: Northeastern’s co-op program begins with a required course during sophomore year that outlines strategies for a successful co-op experience. Northeastern prides itself on having opportunities in nearly every employment sector, from small startups to large Fortune 100 companies. Over 10,000 students participated in the program during the previous academic year alone.

If your student is looking for a way to graduate with hands-on work experience before graduating college, they might want to factor the co-op opportunities a college has into their search.

Participating in a university co-op will not only give your student coveted experience while paying them for their time and energy, but it will make them a more well-rounded, mature citizen of the world who’s confident with how to handle life after college.

How to Choose a Co-Op College, Internship or Work-Study

Selecting the right pathway during your college years is a significant decision that can have a lasting impact on your career and personal growth. Whether you’re considering a co-op college, an internship, or a work-study program, it’s crucial to weigh the pros and cons of each to find the best fit for you. 

Here, we guide you through the critical factors to consider when choosing between these options:

  • Understanding Your Goals: Before making a choice, outline your career goals clearly. If you are aiming for a hands-on industry experience that integrates with your academic learning, a co-op college might be the best choice. On the other hand, if you are looking for a short-term experience or a way to earn some extra money while studying, internships and work-studies could be more suitable.
  • Analyzing Your Financial Situation: Work-study programs often offer financial aid benefits, making it a cost-effective choice for many students. Co-op programs, although paid, might come with additional fees. Internships can be either paid or unpaid. Evaluate your financial circumstances to choose a pathway that aligns with your budget.
  • Researching Opportunities: Make sure to conduct thorough research into the available opportunities. Look into the industries and companies tied to co-op colleges, the kind of internships available in your field, and the work-study opportunities on your campus.
  • Seeking Guidance: Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from career counselors, alumni, and current students to gather insights into the different options. Their experiences can provide a deeper understanding and help you make an informed decision.
  • Flexibility in Schedule: Consider the flexibility offered by each option. Co-op programs may require a more significant time commitment and might extend your graduation timeline, while internships and work-study programs offer more flexible schedules.
  • Gaining Relevant Experience: Prioritize options that offer experience relevant to your field of study. Co-op programs often provide industry-aligned experience, while internships can offer insights into the working world, and work-studies may offer roles more aligned with campus services.
  • Building a Network: Building a professional network is a critical aspect of advancing in your career. Co-op programs often offer excellent opportunities to network with industry professionals. Internships can also offer networking opportunities, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent compared to co-op programs.
  • Personal Growth and Development: Lastly, consider how each option contributes to your personal growth and development. While co-op programs offer a rich learning experience, internships provide a glimpse into the corporate world, and work-studies offer a balance between work and study.

Remember, the best choice depends on your individual goals, preferences, and circumstances. Take the time to evaluate each option carefully to find the path that best aligns with your career aspirations and educational journey.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Why You Should Research a College’s Career Service Center Before Enrolling

Career Services and Finding Your First Post-College Job

Five Career Options for Computer Science Majors




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