Q&A: What Are Cooperative Education Programs and How Do They Work?

Cooperative education (or co-operative education) is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience. A cooperative education experience, commonly known as a “co-op“, provides academic credit for structured job experience, and is taking on new importance in helping young people to make the school-to-work transition. It falls under the umbrella of work-integrated learning (alongside internships, service learning and clinical placements) but is distinct, as it alternates a school term with a work term in a structured manner, involves a partnership between the academic institution and the employer, and generally is both paid and intended to advance the education of the student.[1]

University of Waterloo operates the largest post-secondary co-op program in the world, with nearly 20,000 co-op students enrolled over three semesters in more than 120 programs.[2][3][4][5]

Cooperative Education Program

Why is cooperative education important?

By participating in cooperative education, students can take the lessons they have learned from class and apply them to the workplace. While working a full-time entry-level position, they can gain an idea of what the everyday tasks of their desired role may entail. Taking part in a cooperative education program can also help prepare students for real workplace experiences and decisions. Moreover, it allows students to determine if this is the right career and industry for them.

What is cooperative education?

Cooperative education is a college-held program that allows a student to take their classroom knowledge and apply it to an on-site job. Cooperative education typically occurs during a student’s junior or senior year of college. They will often work in a position within their area of study. For example, a student who’s a marketing major would work in an entry-level role, like a marketing coordinator. If the cooperative educational role is full-time, it can take the place of in-class coursework.

Difference between internships and cooperative education

It can be easy to confuse internships with cooperative education as they both seek to give hands-on experience for college students. Here are a few key differences between internships and cooperative education.

Interns may work for free or less pay

If a student participates in an on-site internship, they may receive less pay in exchange for valuable on-site experience. Payment can vary depending on the employer and type of internship. Cooperative education students will treat it as a full-time or part-time job, so they will often receive more pay than an internship.

Cooperative education students may work more hours

Interns may maintain a full course load

Cooperative education students may take a break from courses for a semester or two as they participate in this program. This can allow them to witness the full-time job experience. If they’re pursuing a part-time program, they may still attend classes that consist of fewer courses. An intern will often maintain an internship and a full schedule of classes at once.

Who uses cooperative education?

Below are a few different universities that offer cooperative education to students:

1. Cornell University

Requirements: To participate in a cooperative education program at Cornell University, a student should be an active engineering student currently within their junior year. The required cumulative GPA for this program is 2.7. They offer an alternating semester program along with a summer program.

2. Drexel University

Requirements: This college holds cooperative education programs for various areas of study. Students will often participate with larger well-known companies. Their college may require them to participate in more than one cooperative education program, depending on the field they study in. They can often begin this program at the start of their sophomore year.

3. Purdue University

Requirements: Purdue often requires students to complete programs that are three to five semesters long, depending on the preference of their major’s department. This means that they may attend a program for a semester, take courses the following semester and then return to a cooperative education program afterward. They may also require their students to work for the same company throughout their entire cooperative education program.

4. Berea College

Requirements: All students in this college may be required to participate in a cooperative education program while attending school. Students are encouraged to work in a position related to their area of study for approximately ten to twelve hours per week while also taking courses.

5. Georgia Institute of Technology

Requirements: The cooperative education program offered here is optional for students but highly encouraged. It’s very common for most of the students to participate in several cooperative education programs throughout their years at the college. Many will transition regularly from full-time courses to a full-time co-op program each semester.

Types of cooperative education

The three types of cooperative education programs students may participate in are listed below:

Part-time cooperative education program

Students can participate in this program while still taking courses. They can treat this program as a basic part-time job. Students can attend classes, then work on-site at a company to learn more about the desired hands-on career of their choice.

One-semester program

Some universities may require students to complete only one semester of a full-time program. Students can work at a company within their field of study and treat it as a full-time job while still gaining college credit. Once the semester has finished, students can return to their full-time course schedule.

Alternating semester program

An alternating semester program occurs when a student participates in the program more than once. Certain majors may require a student to gain several semesters of hands-on experience. They can work in a full-time position for a semester, return to classes the next semester and then participate in the program an additional time. Some areas of study require a student to participate in one to three sessions of the alternating semester program.

Depending on the institution, they may require some students to work for the same company throughout each semester. Others may encourage the student to attempt to work with different companies in a variety of job positions.


What is a cooperative learning program?

Co-op, short for cooperative education, is a program that balances classroom theory with periods of practical, hands-on experience prior to graduation. Through the co-op program, students are able to alternate academic study with full-time employment, gaining practical experience in their field of study.

What is cooperative education Program in Canada?

What is co-op in Canada? Co-op, also known as co-operative education, combines your school studies with an official paid work term. Ultimately, you gain valuable experience in a career you’re interested in while earning your degree.

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