Pros and Cons of College Co-Op Programs

Attending college can be an exciting experience for students as they have opportunities to explore new fields, make friends and engage in experiential learning like a college co-op program.

What is a College Co-Op Program

A co-op, short for cooperative education, is an extended form of experiential learning.  One of the differences from internships is that while internships may be full-time over the summer or part-time, co-ops are full-time work experiences. As a result, they typically last longer than an internship, with students alternating semesters between work and school. So it’s not uncommon for them to last six or even nine months. Students complete co-ops in their chosen field of study or in an area they’re exploring for possible career choices.

Co-op education has existed since 1906, when it started at the University of Cincinnati. Initially, the focus was engineering programs. Recognizing the success and possibility of co-ops, Northeastern University was the second school to adopt this experiential learning method. Today, many schools provide these opportunities to students in nearly every major. Some students consider the availability of co-ops as a primary factor in choosing a college.

Pros of Co-Op Programs

  • Students learn what life is like in the real world. In addition, they experience what it’s like to work full-time, which is new for many students. 
  • Confirming interest in a field is one of the most positive aspects of a co-op. A student should have a definite feeling if the field is right for them after completing the co-op. Of course, they may discover that the field is not a good fit. Either outcome is incredibly valuable.
  • A co-op provides many opportunities to network with professionals and peers in their chosen field. These relationships can prove invaluable as they move further into their career.
  • Most companies with co-op positions treat the students like first-year employees and fully immerse them in the company culture. There is no better way for a student to determine if a company’s culture is a good fit than by actually working there. 
  • Co-op positions generally offer students a chance to take on more responsibilities than they’re accustomed to; this can also mean higher pay. Pay ranges differ depending on your field, just like in the real world. For example, some technical positions can pay more than $50 per hour. 
  • If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live in a different city or even internationally, co-ops can provide that opportunity. Live internationally; or in another city
  • Students find themselves more easily employable after graduation. This is because they typically have one to two years of relevant and meaningful work experience to include on their resume. 
  • The relevant work experience gained in a college co-op can translate to a higher starting salary in post-college employment.
  • College is a time for self-discovery, and co-op students go through this process in ways most don’t get a chance to until after graduation.
  • Students don’t pay tuition during the time they’re in the co-op program. So it can be an opportunity for them to earn money to pay for college.
  • Co-op wages do not count toward a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for financial aid consideration.

Cons of Co-Op Programs

  • The nature of co-op programs, where students spend a semester working off-campus, means that most schools don’t have a traditional sense of community common. In addition, they may find that friends are on different co-op schedules, so relationships can be more challenging to maintain. 
  • Colleges with co-op programs have strong employer relationships and robust career services departments. However, it is incumbent on the students to secure their co-op positions. This can create a competitive atmosphere that may not appeal to all students.  
  • Some majors, like computer science, engineering, or finance, may have many co-op opportunities that pay well; other majors may have lower wages or be unpaid. One could argue that it’s better to learn about the demand and pay scale for a particular career field now rather than after graduation.
  • Colleges don’t guarantee co-op positions. Students still have to undergo an interview process, just like in the real world.
  • Working full-time, perhaps in a different city with little support, requires a high level of maturity at a young age. In addition, a student may be the only co-op student in a particular company, and they should be prepared for that situation.
  • Participating in a co-op can reaffirm your chosen career field, but it can be difficult if you do not know what career you’d like to pursue. 
  • Most co-op opportunities require students to find their housing and transportation. Although the college’s co-op office will undoubtedly have resources to help, it will be the student’s ultimate responsibility to make arrangements. This can already be quite challenging if you’re looking in the same area as your college. However, it becomes even more stressful when you’re searching in other parts of the country or even abroad.
  • Participating in a co-op program can mean it takes longer than four years to graduate, depending on the number of co-op positions a student takes part in.

Colleges with Co-Op Programs
Many colleges offer co-op experiences. Below are some of the most well-known programs. 

Clemson University – The Clemson co-op program boasts a 94% student satisfaction rate, and 100% of co-op graduates surveyed said co-ops helped them with their job search. With more than 450 companies that partner with the school, there are opportunities in nearly any industry a student may be interested in. Our team provides a deep dive in the YCBK College Spotlight on Clemson University.

Drexel University – The co-op program at Drexel University sees 97% student participation. They offer two co-op options: a five-year program with three co-op experiences and a four-year option with one co-op experience.  There is a summer-only co-op program for select majors. The YCBK College Spotlight on Drexel provides more information on student opportunities.

Elon University – The co-op experience is an academic program taught by the College of Arts & Sciences Director of Internships. Elon’s program is a credit-bearing experience, so students will be responsible for regular tuition charges. Learn more about their commitment to experiential learning in the YCBK College Spotlight on Elon.

Georgia Institute of Technology – Georgia Tech started its co-op program in 1912, making it the fourth oldest in the country. The school leverages its deep connections with employers to provide students with meaningful co-op opportunities. They offer a five-year program for co-op students. Learn more about this powerhouse of a school in the Georgia Tech YCBK College Spotlight.

Northeastern University – With one of the country’s oldest and most extensive co-op programs and 98% of students participating, Northeastern prepares students for competitive job markets and sees 93% of its graduates employed or enrolled within nine months of graduation. In addition, their global presence means they have co-op opportunities spanning all seven continents. Check out the YCBK College Spotlight on Northeastern for an in-depth look at their program.

Rochester Institute of Technology – RIT offers traditional co-op experiences where students are immersed in the workplace. However, they also provide two unique co-op models: RIT On-Campus Co-op and an Entrepreneurial Co-op. RIT On-Campus Co-op has students working full-time on campus in a field related to their studies. In the Entrepreneurial Co-op program, students work for themselves rather than an employer. This opportunity is unpaid, but there is a possibility for a stipend.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – RPI’s co-op program provides students with paid experiences in their field of study lasting six to eight months. Co-op is open to all students and degree programs, except Freshmen. 

University of Cincinnati – Co-op education was started at the University of Cincinnati in 1906, which means they have more than 100 years of experience in providing experiential learning opportunities for students. In addition, the Undergraduate Research Co-op Fellowship offers students a chance to work with faculty from the College of Engineering and Applied Science, providing a competitive pathway to graduate program admission.

University of Florida – At Florida, the co-op opportunity must be related to a student’s academic course of study. Therefore, they recommend that students verify with their academic advisor to ensure the co-op experience is allowable in their discipline and confirm the academic department’s process.

Wentworth Institute of Technology – Home of one of the most comprehensive co-op programs in the country, all Wentworth undergraduate day students must complete two co-op semesters to graduate. Students are assigned a dedicated Co-op & Career Advisor who provides support on job search, resume writing, and interview techniques.