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Careers

Co-ops Put College Students to Work

These schools give students on-the-job training before they graduate.

Sumita Gangwani, a student at Drexel University, has worked for IKEA and a retail trade association through the school's co-op program. Photograph by Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Students and their families are increasingly questioning whether the time and money they invest in a college degree will pay off. There is no definitive answer, but college graduates continue to enjoy lower unemployment rates and higher earnings potential than students who don't attend college. Still, in a competitive job market, many college graduates find that a degree isn't always enough to secure a lucrative job offer. Employers also want workers who have real-world experience.

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That's where cooperative education programs, also known as co-ops, come in. These programs have long offered students a way to gain professional work experience while enrolled in school full-time. Students typically begin college with a year of full-time study, then alternate between traditional academic semesters and full-time work—usually for pay—in their chosen field in three- to six-month stretches. Most students complete between one and five co-op stints, usually gaining at least a year of professional experience before they graduate.

Because of the amount of time that students spend with their employers, co-op programs generally require five years for a bachelor's degree, rather than the usual four. Although most programs offer the option to complete fewer co-ops and graduate in four years, relatively few students choose this option. In many co-op programs, about half of the students receive a job offer from at least one of their co-op employers before graduation. And graduates of co-op programs tend to command higher starting salaries and stay with their first employers longer than other recent graduates.

But even with the prospect of a job after graduation, co-op programs can be a hard sell. When Sumita Gangwani, 21, heard about Drexel University's co-op program, she wasn't keen on the idea of spending an extra year in school. Plus, after growing up about 12 miles from Drexel's campus in Philadelphia, she wanted to attend college farther from home. Still, her mother urged her to consider how the work experience she would gain through the co-op program would help her build a career.

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Now in her fourth year at Drexel, where she is studying environmental science, Gangwani has completed two of three co-ops—one in corporate communications for furniture-retailer Ikea and the other focusing on sustainability for a retail trade association in the Washington, D.C., area. "Co-op is helping me build my résumé, but it's also helping me find ways to combine my love of retail with my interest in sustainability," says Gangwani. And by taking extra classes while on campus plus a few classes online during her co-ops, she'll graduate with her master's degree.

Budgeting for co-ops

Scores of colleges and universities, including private colleges, public universities and community colleges, allow students to participate in cooperative education programs or other opportunities to mix education and professional experience. At many schools, the programs are limited to a small group of students, such as those in an honors program or a specific academic field. But at a small group of schools, including Drexel, Northeastern, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Cincinnati, co-op education is a defining part of the curriculum and culture.

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The size and schedule of co-op programs varies. For example, most students participating in Northeastern's co-op program complete three six-month co-ops, but co-op students at the University of Cincinnati complete as many as five co-ops in the same amount of time. And at Rochester Institute of Technology, students often complete two of their co-ops in back-to-back semesters.

While a fifth year of school usually runs up the cost of an undergraduate degree, that's not the case with co-op schools. Students pay tuition (and are eligible for financial aid) when they're enrolled in classes, but not while working at their co-op jobs. Payment on student loans that require full-time enrollment, such as federal Stafford loans, is deferred because co-op participants are considered full-time students even when they're completing a co-op. Stretching the equivalent of four years of tuition over five years puts less strain on family budgets and can reduce the amount students need to borrow, says Manny Contomanolis, who works in career development at Northeastern University.

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Students are generally paid for their co-op positions. The amount they earn depends on several factors—their level of expertise, the field in which they're working and where the co-op is located—but most earn enough to cover their living expenses. For example, at Drexel, about 80% of co-op positions are paid, with students earning an average of about $17,000 per co-op last year. At Northeastern, students typically earn about $20 an hour, or about $20,000 over a six-month period.

Those working in a particularly lucrative field, such as computer science or engineering, or who are able to keep their living costs down while they're working, often return to campus with extra money to cover some of their expenses the following semester. In most cases, students are responsible for housing costs while they're working, although some employers provide subsidies or offer company-owned housing. Students who work in an unpaid co-op or who want to cut costs often look for positions near their hometown or in areas where they can live with family.

Earnings from a summer job can reduce a student's need-based financial aid award, but the aid formulas make an exception for co-op earnings. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid requires students to report earnings from a co-op, but the amount is excluded from adjusted gross income when calculating how much the family is expected to contribute toward the cost of college.

Brianna Karelin, 23, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati's construction management program last spring, says the school's college co-op program offered her the opportunity to live in different parts of the country without paying out-of-state tuition. Her five co-op jobs took her to Dallas and Allentown, Pa., to work on bridges, to Missouri to coordinate the construction of wind turbines, and to the San Francisco area to create assembly procedures for electrical work. Her co-op employers paid well and provided housing or a stipend to cover housing costs. Her co-op income, combined with careful spending habits, provided Karelin with enough money to cover expenses the following semester and avoid taking student loans for most of the time she was in college. Before graduation, Karelin accepted a full-time engineering job with her final co-op employer, Helix Electric.

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Charting a course

During their time on campus, students take a full-time course load and work with a faculty adviser to prepare, search and apply for their co-op positions. Schools with large co-op programs typically partner with hundreds of companies in the U.S. and overseas—from multinational com­panies to small start-ups. It's not unusual for students to have been on two- to three-dozen professional interviews by the time they graduate, says Randall Deike, senior vice president at Drexel University. That puts them a step ahead of other students after graduation and serves them well throughout their careers, he says. Most also build a professional network of contacts that they can use to find their first job—as well as jobs later in their careers.

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Students are expected to work with an adviser or co-op coordinator to create a plan to find co-ops in fields that interest them, with various employers, or in diverse parts of the country or abroad. And because students are new to the workforce, many need advice on everything from living on a budget in a high-cost city to understanding the difference between being on a com­pany's payroll and working as a contractor, says Cindy Damschroder, a University of Cincinnati professor who advises students in the school's interior design program.

It's not unusual for students to revise their co-op plans, their elective course load or even their career goals when they return from a co-op. Karelin, for example, gained experience in concrete and bridge-building but chose to co-op with Helix Electric—the company that later hired her—to try a new area of work and new part of the country.

After three co-op jobs, Madaline Ganton, a fifth-year interior design student at the University of Cincinnati, thought she wanted to work at a smaller firm but decided to try a larger event-planning and production company for her next co-op. Once there, she says, "I realized I wanted to work on something that had a faster pace—and that I can still get to know my co-workers at a larger company." Ganton recently returned to the same company to complete her final co-op.

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Other paths to a career

A bachelor's degree isn't the only ticket to a well-paying job. With low unemployment rates, job prospects for those with nontraditional credentials are promising. These alternatives to a four-year degree get students into the workforce faster, cheaper or both.

Community colleges enable students to earn a two-year degree or use the program as a springboard to a four-year school. These local, public schools charge an average of $3,570 a year in tuition and fees—about one-third of what the typical four-year school charges in-state students, according to the College Board. Recently, several tech giants, including Amazon.com, Google and Tesla, have partnered with community colleges to provide education in skills they need, while offering students who complete the program a shortcut to a good job.

Certificate programs can help you beef up your résumé in a few weeks to several months. There are online and in-person options for young workers launching their careers as well as veteran employees who want to update their skills. The programs are offered through community colleges, four-year schools and industry-specific professional organizations.

Trade schools, also known as technical or vocational schools, are experiencing a resurgence, thanks to a dearth of skilled electricians, plumbers, welders and other trade workers. State legislatures and the federal government are pouring money into initiatives to ramp up enrollment and improve programs, which typically last two years and cost about $33,000.

Apprenticeships offer on-the-job training and experience for workers in a variety of fields, from carpentry to technology. Apprentices gain specific skills while earning a paycheck, and the experience often leads to a full-time job. To find a program in your area, visit www.dol.gov/apprenticeship.

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