What are co-op programs and where can I take them?

Posted on 17th May 2021

“I want to work in business.”
“Having a successful career is important to me.”
“I want to study somewhere where I'll be able to get good internships and work experience.”
“I learn best in a hands-on way.”

These are things that we hear lots of bright, ambitious students say each year! They also connect to the core aspects of co-operative learning programmes (often called simply co-op programmes or co-ops). These programmes, offered by some US universities, combine traditional academic learning with paid employment at companies related to students’ career interests.

Whilst applying to colleges with strong programmes in business or economics is one way to set yourself up for professional achievement, it's not the only one. Even if you don’t choose to study one of those subjects, attending a US college can be a great way to give yourself a leg up in the business world. Not only is global experience a great thing to have on your CV, but co-ops can be a great stepping-stone between the classroom and the working world, and allow students to integrate what they're learning in the classroom with on-the-job experience, before they even finish university!

Co-op programmes may not suit every type of learner, but if you're someone who is keen to jump in to the professional world and who likes experience-based learning, seeing how the world works, and applying classroom knowledge to real life and to work situations, they may be a great option for you.

More immersive than internships or work experience placements, co-op learning programmes give students payment and college credit for working in a field related to their studies and career goals. Different colleges will structure their co-op programmes slightly differently, but most alternate periods of study with periods of work, so students don't feel pulled in two directions by the different demands! Each co-op placement typically lasts three months to a year.

Perhaps the college best-known for its co-op programme is Northeastern University. There, students taking part in co-ops first take an introductory course preparing them for their experience, then begin their work placements in their second year. Northeastern students have the option of completing their undergraduate degrees in four or five years. In the four-year option, students can do one or two co-ops, and in the five-year, up to three. After finishing a co-op placement, students are asked to complete reflective assignments, connecting their experience in the workforce to their academic studies. There are also co-op coordinators to guide and support students through the process. You can find out more about Northeastern’s co-op programme here.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has different options of format for its co-op programmes: full-time co-op and parallel co-op. The full-time option enables students to work full time, whereas the parallel option is more like a part-time job: students on the latter option would take two or three academic courses alongside their employment. So, whether you prefer to immerse yourself in one thing at a time, or shift fluidly between the classroom and the workplace, RPI can accommodate this.

Drexel University also offers co-op programmes, and requires them of most of their academic majors. Like Northeastern, students can choose to complete their degrees in four or five years, and generally alternate six months of work experience with six months of academic work. Although many people in the UK may not be familiar with the University of Cincinnati, its co-op programme places students at companies whose names we all know: Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla! Other US colleges with co-op programmes include University of Florida, Elon University, and Antioch College.

One important note for international students is that it is always a good idea to check in with the co-op office of each college which interests you, to ensure that international students are eligible for this programme, as they do involve paid employment. Generally, the F-1 visa enables them to engage with these programmes, but it's always best to check!

If you’re a student who is looking at the university experience as a way to learn practical job skills and set yourself up for a successful professional career, a co-op programme could help you accomplish this. Additionally, it could enhance your CV and make yourself a more competitive candidate in the hiring pool. And perhaps most importantly, co-op programmes focus on and empower the student, giving them a sense of mastery both over their learning and over the process of moving into the professional world. It can be stressful to feel that you need to make yourself into the perfect job candidate, ticking all the boxes. But co-ops allow you to test out a range of potential careers, so you can learn which type of jobs and roles under the wide umbrella of ‘business’ you’re naturally suited to, and provide you with a guided transition from the world of study into the world of work.

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