How Co-Op Programs Shape Your Career Path While in College

An internship is not the only option for obtaining real-world experience.

There’s also the so-called education cooperative or co-op that allows you to do the same by alternating your academic study with full-time employment, which can be up to one year long.

It’s like an internship.

However, it’s usually longer and most students who participate in it get paid.

More importantly, a co-op is not just any actual industry experience — it’s always related to a co-op student’s college major, allowing for building a career even before entering the labor force.

Are co-op programs worth it?

Certain undergraduates can benefit more from co-op programs than others.

Engineering, business, information technology, and healthcare majors specifically can gain a lot from being co-op students because their chosen disciplines call for substantial amounts of hands-on practical experience.

Co-op participation offers perks beyond experiential learning.

Through co-ops, students can build a professional network, reinforce their intended career paths (or explore prospective ones), and, in many instances, make money.

While they may be ideal for many, co-op programs do not come without some downsides.

co-op programs

Co-Op vs. Internship: What’s the Difference?

Many students use co-op and internship programs interchangeably.

No one can blame them because these programs have similarities.

For instance, both co-ops and internships allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world scenarios. They also enable them to gain skills, build a network, and increase job marketability.

However, there are main differences between co-op and internship programs:

Program Duration

Internships last from 10 to 12 weeks — sometimes a lot less.

They also usually happen in the summer, although others may occur in the fall and spring terms.

On the other hand, co-ops are much longer, sometimes up to 12 long months, which means someone in a co-op program could spend an entire academic year outside the campus.


Around 40% of internships are unpaid.

While not all co-op students receive pay, there are more co-op programs than internship programs that pay.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), over 70% of undergraduate students enrolled in co-op programs say their colleges require financial compensation.

Employment Status

In the workplace, interns are considered interns.

Meanwhile, co-op program undergraduate students are considered full-time employees because that’s exactly what they are: on the same level as actual full-time employees.

Such is why co-op students usually alternate between school and work yearly.

Some colleges allow co-op students to work part-time so that they can take some courses during the academic year.

Relevance to the Major

Internships may or may not be related to the majors of students.

Meanwhile, co-ops must be related to the areas of discipline college students are concentrating in — co-op programs must abide by the academic guidelines set by one’s university.

Co-ops may also give an undecided student the chance to explore their options.

Credit Earning

Internships can enrich an undergraduate student’s learning experience.

While some colleges offer internship opportunities and even recommend them, it’s perfectly fine for students not to grab them.

In contrast, co-op programs are usually a component of one’s degree program — so much so that they allow students to earn college credit, and participation in them becomes a part of the official transcript.

teamwork in business class

Why Co-Ops Are Worth Your Time

Cooperative education is available and often required for various reasons.

The program started in 1906 at the University of Cincinnati, and it became an instant success — no exact data exists on how many colleges offer co-op programs these days, though it’s common knowledge that a substantial number do.

According to US News, these are the top 15 colleges with coop programs:

Northeastern UniversityBoston, MA
Drexel UniversityPhiladelphia, PA
Berea CollegeBerea, KY
Georgia Institute of TechnologyAtlanta, GA
Rochester Institute of TechnologyRochester, NY
University of CincinnatiCincinnati, OH
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridge, MA
Elon UniversityElon, NC
Purdue UniversityWest Lafayette, IN
Cornell UniversityIthaca, NY
Duke UniversityDurham, NC
Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburgh, PA
Stanford UniversityStanford, CA
Clemson UniversityClemson, SC
Worcester Polytechnic InstituteWorcester, MA

Is co op worth it in university?

A definite yes!

Let’s quickly go over some of the most noteworthy reasons why:

Real-World Related Experience

Internships allow students to gain real-world experience.

However, their experience outside the classroom may or may not be related to what they study inside it — non-related experiences can keep them from applying theoretical knowledge and building essential skills.

Meanwhile, co-ops are always directly related to their major.

Professional Networking

Co-op students have the golden opportunity to build relationships with professionals in the workplace.

Making connections with experts in what they are majoring in not only facilitates learning from experienced individuals but also allows networking with them for job references and offers.

Most companies love hiring co-op students to lower recruitment and training costs.

Career Path Establishment

Participation in co-op programs enables students to determine whether or not their intended careers are indeed the right ones for them because it allows them to experience them beforehand.

Co-ops can also benefit undergraduates with undecided majors.

That’s because it allows them to test if something they are considering is the best fit.

Financial Perks

Again, more than 70% of co-op students receive pay.

According to the most recent data from ZipRecruiter, the average hourly pay for co-op students in the United States is $16.57, which is equivalent to $34,465.60 per year for those working full-time.

Most co-op students are full-time employees, working up to 40 hours per week.

Unfortunately, there are also downsides to co-op programs:

  • Possible delayed degree completion
  • Limited resources for electives
  • Competitive admissions process
  • No employment guaranteed

Prior to committing to a co-op program, ensure that you carefully weigh the pros and cons beforehand.

Remember to plan and balance your commitments well if the program is a component of your undergraduate degree program, which means you must undergo it to meet graduation requirements.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

Similar Posts