There are lots of ways to make money in college if you’re crafty. While work study or a plain, old part-time job are some of the most traditional, there is another option out there 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 also apply their classroom learnings in the workforce.
Debbie Schwartz, Road2College founder, shares her opinion of co-op programs:
“I didn’t know much about co-op programs till 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 all 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 before one graduates?”
How Do Co-ops Work?
Co-ops – or cooperative educational experiences – offer students the chance of payment and academic credit for an actual job experience during their undergraduate career. This hands on experience before you enter the workforce can have a positive domino effect when it comes to your future career by making it easier to get a job after college. There’s also a strong chance that your co-op company recruits directly from co-op participants.
According to The College Affordability Guide, 56.8% of employers made full-time offers to their co-op students. Even if your co-op company doesn’t hire from your cohort pool, your practical work experience may make you 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 and well, 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?
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 concurrently 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 fully devoted to your co-op experience. Unlike internships where your chances of being paid for your work are low, 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, which means that 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 (for the FAFSA prior-prior base year in which it was earned). However, also on the FAFSA is question 44f that 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.
(Side 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 than the types of opportunities available, since plenty are out there for students who are more business-oriented or preprofessional focused.
Difference Between Co-ops and Internships
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 to contact advisors to make sure you receive academic credit, or completing reflections on your overall experience. Schools take this active role because they want you to learn the skills of the workplace, not fill your co-workers’ coffee orders.
Different Types of Co-op 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 three 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, you alternate one semester of academic coursework with the following semester of full-time co-op activity. With the part time program, you work at your co-op part time as you might any other part-time or work study job. One semester programs require you to complete just one semester of a co-op program during the course of your academic career (this one is the most similar to traditional internship programs.)
Most universities plan for you to finish your degree and your co-op experience in four years, but a few allow you to finish in five if you’d like to maximize the experience even more. In this case, you’d be sure to pay attention to details when doing your research. Sometimes co-op programs count the summer as a semester, which means that you may have to take academic classes during the summer to stay on track. Further, some co-op programs require you to pay a program fee that may or may not be counted toward your tuition.
Colleges With Co-op Programs
Here are a few examples of the co-op 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 that 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 the 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 flavors of co-op programs, all customized to fit the individual student’s course of study. The university boasts partnerships with companies in 32 states and 51 countries and co-op employers include many prestigious companies from Amazon to Vanguard.
Northeastern University: Northwestern’s coop program begins with a required course during sophomore year that outlines strategies for a successful co-op experience. Northwestern 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.
Other colleges with co-op programs to consider are:
If you’re looking for a way to graduate with hands-on work experience before you even graduate college, you might want to factor the kind of co-op opportunities a college has into your search. Participating in a co-op will not only give you this coveted experience while paying you for your time and energy, but will make you a more well-rounded, mature citizen of the world who’s confident with how to handle life after college.
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By Arlena McClenton, a senior at Barnard College studying comparative literature and web development. In her free time, she can be found drinking tea, scoping out the best campus study spaces, and exploring the city.