Cooperative education programs have become more popular with college-bound students because they help them the build an impressive resume while also allowing them to earn more money towards their education. They are mandatory for engineering and business majors at some schools, voluntary at others. The value of cooperative education depends on:
- Costs. Students who choose a school with a major investment in co-op pay tuition only for the time that they are in classes. However, at most schools, Rochester Institute of Technology being one exception, students pay fees while they are on co-op. These fees are in place to maintain the student’s enrollment and for the student to continue to use services on campus. The IRS needs to know that a co-op student is a student first, a working person second. If you’re doing co-op through a school that charges low tuition or has awarded you a generous scholarship consider yourself doubly blessed. You might graduate with significant work experience as well as little debt. That’s a great position for a recent graduate to be in when they start their career.
- Going five years versus four. Drexel, Purdue and Northeastern, to name three examples, offer students the option of doing co-op over four years or five. The majority at this time choose to go five years to get the additional income as well as additional experience. If the student changed their major s/he might also need five years to graduate while still working in co-op assignments. Personally, I would choose to be done with school and co-op in four years. Having worked with entry-level recruiters and career services professionals over several years, I can tell you that the extra year in school for a bachelor’s degree will not necessary lead to a significantly higher starting salary in the high-demand fields.
- The chosen major. It helps for students to know what they are interested in before they are placed in their first full-time position through co-op. This way the assignments can be structured to offer greater challenges and more responsibility as the student learns more in the classroom and gets closer to completing their degree. An employer likes to see progressive experience on a resume, even for an entry-level hire.
- Wages. It also helps to know how well students are paid, or if they are not paid. Engineering, Computer Science, Chemistry and Accounting co-op assignments, as examples, can pay exceptionally well, far more than a college student would earn working part-time and summers. Ideally, wages earned during co-op should meet, hopefully exceed, costs for room and board for the entire school year. This includes the time you’re on co-op as well as the time you are not. Also keep in mind that employers have not been pressured to raise wages for college students in co-ops though colleges have raised tuition every year. When wage increases are lower than tuition increases you have to find a way to make up the difference in costs.
- School Calendar. Drexel and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo stands out among the larger cooperative education by operating on a quarter system vs. semesters (Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Northeastern) or trimesters (Rochester Institute of Technology). A 10-week quarter goes by faster than it does in a 15 or 16-week semester. But it gives students a chance to gain more work experience as well as take more classes.
- Student Loan Debt. Dependent students can borrow only $31,000 in Federal Stafford Loans towards an undergraduate degree. If the student borrowers the maximum allowed for each year up through their fourth year, that totals up to $27,000 ($5,500 for a freshman, $6,500 for a sophomore, $7,500 each year for the junior and senior years). The student can only borrow $4,000 more for the fifth year. So those who might benefit most from a five-year cooperative education program would be those who could afford not to borrow too much.
I have always been an advocate for experiential learning, including cooperative education. But it takes some research and a little math to compare the benefits from school to school. If you’re enrolled at a college that charges you little or no tuition because of scholarships you can keep for five years, the co-op is icing on the cake. You can graduate with a job, owing next to nothing. I envy the bright Georgia resident at Georgia Tech for this, same for the bright California resident who goes to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.. But if you have to cover most or all of college costs, you might really pay for a co-op based degree.