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Career Development: What is a Co-op? 

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When you start searching for a job, you’ll find that even entry-level positions often ask for some work experience. 

While many students will join a summer internship program or part-time jobs while in school, another way to prepare yourself for the real-world and a career after graduation while you’re still in college is to complete a cooperative education position, more commonly known as a co-op. With a co-op, you get to gain relevant work experience in your field, learn new skills, and get paid or academic credit for the hours you put in. 

Participating in a co-op can significantly increase your chances of securing a job offer after graduation. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that approximately 50% of co-op participants were offered full-time positions by their employers in 2019. 

Co-ops are typically tied to your degree program, so students who are interested in participating in a co-op should research school policies before committing to a particular university so you can choose a school that aligns with your career goals. 

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What is a Co-op?

Co-op students balance classroom theory with periods of hands-on learning through full-time employment. Depending on the industry and the co-op assignment, you may work directly in a laboratory setting or an office with other professionals. 

While academic program specifics can vary from school to school, students will generally complete multi-term work assignments with increasing responsibility as they gain more experience and knowledge.  

While there are co-op programs for a wide range of majors, they are typically associated with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

While there are thousands of universities and colleges in the United States, schools that operate co-op programs are less common. Many more schools have short-term internship opportunities or requirements. There are only about 60 schools in the US that have formal co-op programs in the academic year. Among the most well-known are: 

Drexel University: Drexel University’s co-op program is a degree requirement for most majors. Typically, students will spend six months in a classroom, and six months in a full-time co-op position for real-world experience.

Northeastern University: At Northeastern University, students alternate periods of academic coursework with periods of full-time employment. Students start the co-op experience during their sophomore years.

Purdue University: Purdue University has multiple co-op options, including different sessions and the ability to work for more than one employer. Depending on their program, students gain 12 to 22 months of experience during their college career.

The Differences Between a Co-op and an Internship

A co-op may sound similar to an internship. Some schools and employers may even use the terms interchangeably, but internships and co-ops differ in several key ways:   

Pay: Depending on your field, internships may be paid or unpaid. In certain industries, like marketing and publishing, unpaid internships are very common. By contrast, co-op positions are paid positions, and you’ll know exactly how much you’ll earn throughout your term.

Time commitment: Internships can have varying schedules. Depending on the position and whether the position is unpaid, you may work as little as ten hours a week. With a co-op position, you’ll have a full-time schedule.

Length: Most internships are for relatively short periods of time. For example, you may only intern for the summer or during holiday breaks. With co-op opportunities, you may hold the position for as long as 12 months.

Requirements: Internships are not usually required. While schools encourage students to get internships to gain experience, they’re not necessary to graduate. But at universities with co-op programs, you generally have to fulfill the co-op requirement to complete your degree.

Co-ops Internships
Pay Paid Paid or Unpaid
Time Commitment Full-time 10-40 hours per week
Length Six to 12 months Two to three months
Required to graduate Yes Maybe

Pros and Cons of Co-op Opportunities

While participating in a co-op program can be advantageous for some students, it’s a good idea to consider both the pros and cons of co-ops before enrolling. 

Pros

You can earn money while in school: Since you’ll get paid during your co-op, you’ll earn money while earning credit toward your degree. Depending on your school’s policies, you could earn substantially more than you could with a typical on-campus job

You’ll gain professional experience: With a co-op position, you get hands-on experience in your desired field, increasing your odds of securing a job after you graduate. 

You’ll build your network: Because you’ll be in your position for six to 12 months, you’ll have a chance to develop strong connections with your coworkers and establish a professional network. Those relationships can help you long after you graduate as you progress in your career. 

Cons

A co-op can extend the length of your program: Co-ops require a significant time investment. Depending on your school, the co-op program may extend how long it takes to complete your degree; instead of getting a bachelor’s degree in four years, it may take you five years or more to finish your degree. 

There are typically fees associated with co-ops: While you won’t be attending class during the co-op period, you still have to pay a fee for the co-op program, adding to your college costs

Co-ops require a full-time commitment: Co-op positions are a full-time commitment, and typically require you to be at work from 9-to-5. For college students, that can be a tough transition, and it can be difficult to balance your social life and other obligations. 

Gaining work experience

If you’re trying to decide where to go to school, choosing a university that emphasizes co-op programs and internships can be a way to get valuable work experience, boosting your chances of getting a good job after you graduate. If you’re interested in co-op opportunities, make sure you understand the university’s policies before enrolling so you can take full advantage of the program.  

Need help with your job search? Here are some tips on how to get a job after college

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.