College Co-Op FAQs

Cooperative education is hot today, with colleges that offer them seeing significant increases in first-year applications. But what are they, really?

History of Cooperative Education in the US

Cooperative education is defined as “a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience.” Co-ops were first launched in 1906 at the University of Cincinnati, under the stewardship of Herman Schneider, an educator who believed that classroom-based learning alone was insufficient to train technical students. Northeastern University was an early adopter, implementing its first co-op program in its engineering program in 1909. Ten years later, Drexel adopted a co-op plan in three engineering programs, and by 1925 had expanded to include additional majors.

Co-op Colleges Today

Today more than 60 colleges offer a formal co-op program, including the three original co-op schools—Cincinnati, Northeastern, and Drexel.

Elon University, Purdue University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Rochester Institute of Technology offer some of the more robust co-op experiences. But co-op experiences also exist in unexpected places. Cornell University, for example, has a small co-op program for engineering majors, information science majors, and computer science majors. Although only 11% of Cornell students participate in co-ops (compared to the 77% of Drexel students who have a co-op experience), students who are interested in cooperative education should do thorough research to uncover all of their options.

How Do Co-Ops Work?

While each college has its own structure, there are four basic models: the alternating semester program; the full-time program; the part-time program; and the one-semester program. According to the College Affordability Guide, the alternating semester/full-time program is the “traditional” model.

Students can often choose how many co-ops they want to participate in. At Drexel, for example, students can opt to participate in a one co-op experience and graduate in four years (by taking summer classes) or a three co-op experience and graduate in five years.

A Co-Op Versus an Internship

For some students, the co-op experience may not be right. Internships offer another way to get hands-on experience.

Importantly, co-op programs are not the same as internships in several ways. First, co-op experiences are paid, while internships can be paid or unpaid. Second, co-op experiences are full-time for three to six months during an academic semester, while internships are usually part-time during the school year or over the summer. Third, co-op experiences are done in conjunction with classroom-based learning and are thus directly related to a student’s major, while internships need not be. Finally, students receive academic credit for co-op experiences but typically do not for internships.

Benefits of Co-op Programs

So why do a co-op? Co-ops provide students with hands-on experience, and the opportunity to “try-out” different jobs before choosing their post-college career path. What else do they offer?


According to the 2020 NACE Internship & Co-Op Survey Report, the average hourly wage for co-op participants is $19.76, which is an all-time high. The College Affordability Guide reports that University of Cincinnati students earn about $15,000 per semester, and Waukesha State Bank reports the students typically earn between $11,000-$18,000 per six months of co-op experience.

Importantly, money students earn during their co-op experience does not count against financial aid eligibility (unlike money earned at a non-co-op job).


Many co-op employers also recruit entry-level employees directly from their co-op students. According to NACE, the offer rate out of co-ops was 42.1 percent in 2020 and the acceptance rate was 86.7 percent. In addition, co-op students stay at their jobs: the one-year retention rate for co-op hires was 54.2% and the five-year retention rate was 39.8%.

Questions to Ask

Students interested in attending a cooperative college need to do their research. The Wall Street Journal (and I) identified some questions for students to consider:

  • How many co-ops can a student participate in?
  • What are the tuition implications if the co-op experience means a student will graduate in five rather than four years?
  • Are the co-ops full-time or part-time?
  • Can students continue to take classes while doing a co-op experience?
  • Are the co-op experiences for academic credit?
  • Who are the typical employers and how are they vetted?
  • Are students responsible for finding their own co-op experience or does the college make the placements?
  • How does a co-op experience impact scholarships?


Cooperative colleges combine book knowledge and real-world experience, which is why Forbes says “college co-op programs totally rock.” As with so much in college admissions, it comes down to “fit”—are the college, its co-op program, and the student a good match?