Many colleges and universities help prepare students for the real world by giving them paid on-the-job training while they are still enrolled as full-time college students. Could this model of education be right for your student?
By Joanna Nesbit
When Lisa Wood’s twin sons, Andrew and Nathaniel, began their college search process, they learned about co-op programs and quickly began to zero in on them. Both boys were interested in engineering, and Lisa knew that universities with co-op programs could give them a leg up when it came time to realize the ultimate goal: full-time employment after college.
Experiential Learning in College
Co-ops are one form of experiential learning in college—hands-on learning outside the classroom—that colleges and universities may offer to help students make connections between a field of study and future employment opportunities. Many co-ops are structured around engineering or technical degrees, but universities sometimes offer co-ops for other majors as well.
At Bowling Green State University, for example, students in the College of Technology, Architecture and Applied Engineering are required to complete a co-op as part of their degree. Other BGSU majors don’t require a co-op, but if a student wants to incorporate one, the career center will provide tools for the job search, explains Danielle Dimhoff, associate director of BGSU’s career center.
What is a co-op?
Co-ops provide students with real-world job experience by giving them the opportunity to apply their classroom learning to a semester (or more) of meaningful work with an employer in their field of study. The work is almost always paid—often well above minimum wage—and a student can gain valuable skills and experience, making them a more attractive candidate to employers.
Employers like the co-op model because it’s a cost-effective recruiting strategy that enables companies to identify entry-level talent early on, says Mariah Short, HR coordinator of Keller Logistics Group, a full-service logistics company that partners with BGSU. “Co-ops give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent,” she says—making them a win for the student and the company.
How do co-ops work?
Students attend campus classes full time during their first year. Details of programs may vary by school, but beginning sophomore year, they may alternate semesters of study with full-time work experience in business, industry, government, healthcare, and finance. At BGSU, for example, co-op employers include Amazon, Adobe, Cisco, ProMedica, and JP Morgan, just to name a few.
Students may stay in the same city as their university or relocate to another state or even abroad for their co-op, and they typically receive a housing allowance in addition to their pay.
What kind of students benefit from co-ops?
“Students who have the desire to be trained and get that hands-on experience will excel in this type of program,” Dimhoff says. Co-ops also help students sharpen their career goals because they might learn a particular field isn’t for them, she explains.
For example, Andrew Wood’s co-op involved computer programming in a traditional office setting. “One of the things Andrew learned is that he did not want to be a cubicle-dweller,” says Lisa. After completing his co-op, Andrew decided to work at startups, which he found more stimulating.
Nate Wood’s co-op, by contrast, involved working on the floor at a steel manufacturing plant, complete with hard hat and steel-toed boots. He loved the hands-on aspect of that work, which led him to seek out a lab position on campus that involved manufacturing with a 3-D printer.
One thing they both agreed on, says Lisa: “They loved earning money!” For students who need to contribute to their own tuition costs, this can be a big bonus on top of the educational and career benefits co-ops may provide.
Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She writes frequently about parenting and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Fun, Parenting, and elsewhere.