Extracurricular and academic experiences in college, like research opportunities, work-study positions, and service learning, can help shape your future career. Gaining experience in your intended field, though, may be the most valuable opportunity there is. It shows future employers that you’re serious about pursuing a position in the field, not to mention that it provides training and skills that give you a boost above other graduates. A co-op is one such way to gain this type of experience.
What is a college co-op?
“Co-op” is short for “cooperative education experience.” A co-op combines classroom-based education with practical work experience. Students receive college credit for working a job related to their major, and typically alternate semesters of full-time working and full-time classroom learning. Most co-op students will receive between three and four semesters of work experience by the time they graduate.
What’s the difference between a co-op and an internship?
Internships and co-ops are similar in that they both offer students the opportunity to learn about a particular job. Apprenticeships could also be thrown into the same category, though in many cases apprenticeships are required to earn a credential, while internships and co-ops are nice to have on a résumé, but not always crucial.
Further differences include:
- Internships may or may not be paid, but co-ops are overwhelmingly paid job opportunities. While the pay rates are similar, the average hourly wage for a co-op employee was $19.35 in 2018; interns only earned an average of $18.73/hour.
- Internships are separate from and not sponsored by educational institutions, while co-ops are often sponsored in part by a college or university that has established partnerships with businesses.
- The only goal of an internship is to gain job experience, whereas a co-op provides both job experience and class credits.
- Internships are often done over the summer (and therefore don’t interfere with classes), but co-ops are done during the semester in place of classes (and therefore may extend the length of a degree program).
While an internship is purely extracurricular and a co-op is built into the curriculum, either experience could potentially lead to a job offer later!
Why should I consider a co-op?
Although your GPA and major matter when it comes to getting an interview with a hiring manager, companies really value candidates with on-the-job experience. Yes, it’s possible to get this type of experience by completing an internship, but with a co-op, you’re likely performing more (and higher) job functions and doing so for longer than you would in an internship. You’ll have the added bonus of gaining interview experience while searching and applying for co-op positions.
Furthermore, while a co-op may increase the length of your degree program, you don’t have to pay tuition during your co-op semesters, so the total cost of earning your degree doesn’t change. In fact, taking five years to complete your degree program, but only paying the base cost for four years (due to your co-op semesters) actually spreads out your tuition payments and could make college more affordable. Additionally, money earned while on a co-op semester can further offset the financial burden of college.
If I’m earning money from a co-op position, will it affect my financial aid package?
No, regardless of how much money you earn while working a co-op position, it will not affect your expected family contribution when filing the FAFSA. Note that while you are asked to report co-op earnings on the FAFSA, they will not be taken into account when making final calculations; the government treats student earnings from co-op positions differently than they treat income from typical jobs.
If you’ve earned scholarships or grants, however, payment is typically halted when you are on a co-op semester (because you are not paying tuition or enrolled in a full-time class load). Don’t worry, though. This money does not disappear; it is generally deferred until the next semester that you’re on campus and enrolled in classes.
What are some schools known for their co-op programs?
Co-op opportunities are available at many schools throughout the United States, but some of the more well-known institutions include:
- Drexel University
- Elon University
- Georgia Tech, specifically for business, engineering, and science
- Northeastern University, specifically for business, communications, engineering, health sciences, and information technology
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- University of Cincinnati, specifically for engineering, architecture, graphic design, and accounting
- University of Houston, specifically for engineering
If you’re interested in performing a co-op, but cannot find information about available opportunities on your (prospective) school’s website, reach out to your academic advisor. He or she will be able to tell you if your school participates in any co-op programs and help you find companies that are hiring students.
If your school doesn’t participate, or you’re in a major that isn’t particularly conducive to co-op opportunities, ask your advisor or visit the career center and ask a career counselor about internship opportunities. While co-ops are great, you don’t have to participate one to find a job after graduation.