College Co-Op Programs: What You Need to Know

college co-op programs

College Co-Op Programs: What You Need to Know

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 College Co-Op Programs?

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 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 strong chance that the co-op company will recruit directly from co-op participants.

“An employer was far more likely to offer a job to a student prior to graduation if he or she had an internship or co-op — especially a paid position. The gap in offer rates between students with internship/co-op experience and those without such experience grew from 12.6% in 2011 to 20% in 2015,” according to 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 Colleges With Co-Op Programs

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

“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 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 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 (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 than the types of opportunities available, since plenty are available for students who are more business-oriented or preprofessional-focused. 

What’s the Difference Between 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 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.

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 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 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 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.






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