Cooperative education

Cooperative education

Cooperative 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. Cooperative education is taking on new importance in helping young people to make the school-to-work transition, service learning, and experiential learning initiatives.


History of cooperative education

Schneider's foundations

While at Lehigh University at the beginning of the 20th Century, Herman Schneider (1872–1939), engineer, architect, and educator, concluded that the traditional classroom was insufficient for technical students (Smollins 1999). Schneider observed that several of the more successful Lehigh graduates had worked to earn money before graduation. Gathering data through interviews of employers and graduates, he devised the framework for cooperative education (1901). About that time, Carnegie Technical School, now Carnegie Mellon University, opened and thereby minimized the need for Schneider's co-op plan in the region around Lehigh University. However, in 1903 the University of Cincinnati appointed Schneider to their faculty, and later, in 1906, allowed him an experimental year to implement his plan. Following that year, the University of Cincinnati gave him full permission for the co-op program.

Schneider, beginning from the rank of Assistant Professor, would rise through the rank of Dean of Engineering (1906–1928) to become President (1929–32) of the University of Cincinnati, based largely upon the strength of the co-op program. Throughout his career, he was an advocate for the co-op framework. His thirty years of service to the University of Cincinnati are partly credited for that institution's worldwide fame.

In 1965, The Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA) created "The Dean Herman Schneider Award" in honor of the contributions made by Dean Schneider in cooperative education. The award is given annually to an outstanding educator from faculty or administration.

Post-Cincinnati evolutions

In 1909, seeing the possibility of co-op education, Northeastern University began using co-op in their engineering program, becoming only the second institution to do so in this country. By 1919, Antioch College had adapted the co-op practices to their liberal arts curricula, for which reason many called co-op the "Antioch Plan." Also in 1919 the General Motors Institute (GMI) was opened following this model to train new General Motors hires. This school was later renamed Kettering University.

In 1922, Northeastern University emphasized its commitment to co-op by extending it to the College of Business Administration. As new colleges opened at Northeastern, such as the College of Liberal Arts (1935) and College of Education (1953), they became co-op schools as well. By the 1980s, Northeastern was the acknowledged leader in co-op education across the world.(Smollins 1999)

In 1926, Dean Schneider invited those interested in forming an Association of Co-operative Colleges (ACC) to the University of Cincinnati for the first convention. The idea took hold, and was followed by three more annual conventions. In 1929, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, now called American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), formed the Division of Cooperative Engineering Education, incorporating the membership of the ACC (Auld 1972).

In 1961, the Ford and Edison Foundations commissioned a study of co-operative education, published as Work-study college programs; appraisal and report of the study of cooperative education, (James Warner Wilson and Edward H Lyons, New York: Harper). That study resulted in the formation of the National Commission for Cooperative Education (NCCE). NCCE remains today to promote and lobby for co-operative education in the United States. Its membership comprises sponsoring corporations and organizations (not individuals) from academia and business.

By 1962, about 150 academic institutions used co-op education, in one form or another. Many were outside of engineering. The need for professional support of non-engineering programs became obvious, and the membership of ASEE, in 1963, began the Cooperative Education Association. To reflect its membership more accurately, it was eventually (sometime in the 1990s or early 2000s) named the Cooperative Education and Internship Association, it remains today as the professional association for co-operative education outside of ASEE.

Much of that early efforts of NCCE focused on lobbying and promotiing co-operative education. In 1965, the federal Higher Education Act provided support specifically for co-operative education. Funding continued from the federal government through 1992, when Congress ended its support of co-operative education. In all, a total of over $220 million was appropriated by the federal government toward co-operative education (Carlson 1999)

In 1979, educators from Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States (Northeastern's President, Kenneth Ryder), met to discuss work-related programs in their respective countries. In 1981 and 1982, this group, headed by President Ryder, convened an international conference on cooperative education. In 1983, several college and university presidents, educational specialists, and employers from around the world (including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the Philippines, the United States and the United Kingdom) formed the World Council and Assembly on Cooperative Education to foster co-operative education around the world. In 1991, it renamed itself the World Association for Cooperative Education (WACE). By 2005, that Association boasted a membership of over 1,000 individuals from 43 different countries.

Co-op models

From its beginnings in Cincinnati in 1906, cooperative education has evolved into a program offered at the secondary and post-secondary levels in two predominant models (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995). In one model, students alternate a semester of academic coursework with an equal amount of time in paid employment, repeating this cycle several times until graduation. The parallel method splits the day between school and work, typically structured to accommodate the student's class schedule. Thus, like school-to-work (STW), the co-op model includes school-based and work-based learning and, in the best programs, "connecting activities" such as seminars and teacher-coordinator work site visits. These activities help students explicitly connect work and learning.

Co-op's proponents identify benefits for students (including motivation, career clarity, enhanced employability, vocational maturity) and employers (labor force flexibility, recruitment/retention of trained workers, input into curricula) as well as educational institutions and society (ibid.). Beyond informal and anecdotal evidence, however, a familiar refrain in the literature is the lack of well-done research that empirically demonstrates these benefits (Barton 1996; Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler 1996). Barton (1996) identifies some of the research problems for secondary co-op as follows: federal data collection on high school co-op enrollments and completions ceased in the 1980s; some studies use data in which co-op was not isolated from other work experience programs. Ricks et al. (1993) describe other problems: due to lack of a clear or consistent definition of cooperative education, researchers cannot accurately identify variables and findings cannot be compared; theory is not well developed; theory, research, and practice are not integrated; and co-op research does not adhere to established standards.

Another set of problems involves perceptions of the field and its marginalization. Because of its "vocational" association, co-op is not regarded as academically legitimate; rather, it is viewed as taking time away from the classroom (Crow 1997). Experiential activities are necessarily rewarded in post-secondary promotion and tenure systems (except in certain extenuating situations), and co-op faculty may be isolated from other faculty (Crow 1997; Schaafsma 1996). Despite the current emphasis on contextual learning, work is not recognized as a vehicle for learning (Ricks et al. 1993). Schaafsma (1996) and Van Gyn (1996) agree that the field places too much emphasis on placements rather than learning. Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler (1996) also decry the focus on administration, logistics, placements, and procedures.

Some institutions are fully dedicated to the co-op ideal (such as Georgia Institute of Technology, RIT, Kettering University, LaGuardia Community College and Purdue University). In others, the co-op program may be viewed as an add-on and therefore is vulnerable to cost cutting (Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler 1996). Even where co-op programs are strong they can be threatened, as at Cincinnati Technical College when it became a comprehensive community college (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995) or LaGuardia during a budget crisis (Grubb & Badway 1998). For students, costs and time to degree completion may be deterrents to co-op participation (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995).

New approaches

Despite these problems, there is optimism about the future of co-op education; "Social, economic, and historic forces are making cooperative education more relevant than ever" (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995, p. 17), including emphasis on university-industry-government cooperation, a fluid and demanding workplace, new technology, the need for continuous on-the-job learning, globalization, and demands for accountability (John, Doherty & Nichols 1998). Federal investments in school-to-work and community service have resulted in a number of initiatives designed to provide "learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls" (Furco 1996, p. 9). Because this has always been a principle of co-op, the field is in a position to capitalize on its strengths and the ways it complements other experiential methods in the effort to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students. To do this, however, cooperative education must be redesigned.

For Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler (1996), a new vision involves conceiving, defining, and presenting co-op "as a curriculum model that links work and academics - a model that is based on sound learning theory" (p. 158). Ricks (1996) suggests affirming the work-based learning principles upon which co-op is based. These principles assert that cooperative education fosters self-directed learning, reflective practice, and transformative learning; and integrates school and work learning experiences that are grounded in adult learning theories.

Schaafsma (1996) also focuses on learning, seeing a need for a paradigm shift from content learning to greater understanding of learning processes, including reflection and critical thinking. Co-op is an experiential method, but learning from experience is not automatic. Therefore, Van Gyn (1996) recommends strengthening the reflective component that is already a part of some co-op models. "If co-op is only a vehicle for experience to gain information about the workplace and to link technical knowledge with workplace application, then its effectiveness is not fully developed" (Van Gyn 1996, p. 125).

The Bergen County Academies, a public magnet high school, utilizes co-op education in a program called Senior Experience. This program allows all 12th grade students to participate in cooperative education or an internship opportunity for the full business day each Wednesday. Students explore a wide range of career possibilities. This new approach was recognized as an educational best practice and has been adopted as a state educational initiative for 12th grade students.

Integrating experiential methods

School-to-work and service learning have also been promoted as ways to link theory and practice through meaningful experiential learning experiences. Furco (1996) outlines the similarities between school-to-work and service learning. Although school-to-work, service learning, and co-op have different goals, each of his points also applies to cooperative education:

  • Based on the philosophy that learners learn best through active engagement in meaningful activities
  • View of students as active learners and producers of knowledge
  • Use of such instructional strategies as contextual learning and application of knowledge to real situations
  • Requirement for schools to establish formal partnerships with outside entities
  • Concern for integrating school experiences and external experiences

The Community Service Scholarship Program at California State University-Fresno combines cooperative education with service learning. Students receive co-op/internship credit and scholarships for completing a placement at a community service site (Derousi & Sherwood 1997). As in traditional co-op work placements, students get real-world training, opportunities to explore career options, and enhanced employability skills such as communication, problem solving, and leadership as well as awareness of community and social problems. Combining co-op and service learning thus prepares students for roles as workers and citizens.

Research on highly successful co-op programs in Cincinnati (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995) and at LaGuardia Community College (Grubb & Badway 1998) shows that they share the basic philosophy and fundamental characteristics of the educational strategy of school-to-work. The reconceptualization of co-op should recognize and build upon this connection. At the same time, lessons from successful co-op programs can benefit the broader STW movement.

There is a need for broader definition of acceptable models for integrating work and learning. Barton (1996) and Wilson, Stull & Vinsonhaler (1996) identify a variety of work-based learning activities taking different names: co-op, internships, externships, apprenticeship, career academies, etc. Work-based learning programs should look for connections and develop collaborative relationships. The alternating and parallel co-op models may not meet the needs of returning adult students and dislocated workers needing retraining (Varty 1994). Alternatives such as extended-day programs emphasizing mentoring should be considered.

Connecting activities to integrate school- and work-based learning are an essential part of STW. At LaGuardia, the required co-op seminar helps students make connections by giving them a structure within which to reinforce employability skills, examine larger issues about work and society, and undertake the crucial activities of critical reflection (Grubb & Badway 1998).

Grubb & Badway (1998) and Grubb & Villeneuve (1995) found that the value of cooperative education is embedded in the culture of the institution (LaGuardia) and the region (Cincinnati). In this supportive culture, employer support does not have to be repeatedly obtained and there are clearly understood long-term expectations on all sides (schools, employers, students). This "informal culture of expectations around work-based learning may be more powerful in the long run than a complex set of regulations and bureaucratic requirements" (Grubb & Villeneuve 1995, p. 27).

However, even LaGuardia has found it difficult to sustain co-op culture over time (Grubb & Badway 1998). "The only way in which STW programs can find a permanent place in schools and colleges is for the work-based component to become so central to the educational purposes of the institutions that it becomes as unthinkable to give it up as it would be to abandon math, English, or science" (Grubb & Badway 1998, p. 28).

Finn (1997) believes that the answer lies in going beyond reconceiving co-op as an "educational strategy, pedagogy, model, methodology, or curriculum" (Finn 1997, p. 41). She asserts that it is time for cooperative education to develop and define its body of knowledge, investigate its unique phenomena-e.g., the concept of learning from experience, and clarify and strengthen the qualifications of co-op practitioners. For Ricks (1996), cooperative education is inherently committed to improving the economy, people's working lives, and lifelong learning abilities. It can thus position itself to serve the experiential learning needs of students into the 21st century.

Cates and Cedercreutz (2008) demonstrate that the assessment of student work performance as pursued by co-op employers, can be used for continuous improvement of curricula. The methodology, funded by the Fund for Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) has been developed to a level allowing institutionalization. The methodology could, when implemented over a larger front, provide a substantial competitive advantage for the entire field.


  • The University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada has the largest co-operative education program in the world,[1] with more than 14,000 students enrolled in co-op programs and more than 3,500 active co-op employers. It offers fully automated Web-based job submission (for employers) and job application/resume posting (for students). Waterloo's engineering program is one of the few co-op only engineering programs in Canada. Waterloo's 5-year co-op program includes 24 months of work experience, the longest undergraduate co-op experience in Canada. Enrolling in the a co-op program at the University of Waterloo does not guarantee co-op employment. The school requires students to have a minimum of 16 months of valid work experience (depending on the program of study) to successfully complete their academic program. Despite a high percentage of employment via the coop program, many students obtain employment by other methods, including a student's personal networks and unpaid full-time volunteering positions.
  • Also in Waterloo is Wilfrid Laurier University and the Laurier School of Business & Economics, which provides a co-op business program. It has a competitive entry limited to about one-third of the students who start the BBA program in their first-year, offers three four-month work terms, and uses web-based tools for job application. It is the first program of its kind in Canada.[2] Additionally, the school offers a co-op MBA program for high calibre students with less than 2 years of work experience.[3]
  • Located in Vancouver, Canada, the University of British Columbia's co-operative education program includes over 3000 students from the faculties of Arts, Commerce, Engineering, Forestry, Kinesiology, and Science. Since its inception over 30 years ago, UBC Co-op has grown to become the largest program offered by post-secondary institutions in British Columbia, Canada.
  • The Florida Institute of Technology has the most condensed cooperative education program allowing students to graduate in four years with 3-semester work terms. This program is only followed by engineering students and requires students to take online coursework while they are working full time as a cooperative education student.This program's formal title is "ProTrack".
  • Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has one of the largest co-operative education programs in the United States, branded as "The Ultimate Internship". Drexel has a fully Internet-based job database, where users can submit resumes and request interviews with any of the hundreds of companies that are offering positions. A student graduating from Drexel with a 5-year degree typically has a total of 18 months of internship with up to three different companies.
  • Northeastern University in Boston, MA has the largest, and second-oldest, co-operative education program in the United States, and is known as one of the only five-year universities in the United States. A student graduating from Northeastern with a 5-year bachelor's degree has a total of 18 months of internship experience with up to three different companies.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology was among the first universities to begin cooperative education back in 1912. Today RIT's program is the fourth-oldest and one of the largest in the world.
  • Georgia Institute of Technology was one of the first universities to offer cooperative education in 1912. It is the fourth-oldest and the largest optional co-op program in the United States and has perennially been listed in U.S. News & World Report as one of the "Top Ten" co-op programs in America[citation needed] .
  • Kettering University in Flint, Michigan enrolls students in co-operative education from their first year on campus, specializing in engineering, science, and management degree programs.
  • Steinbeis Center of Management and Technology of Steinbeis University Berlin offers an international masters program (Master of Business Engineering, MBE)for graduates and young professionals which integrates practical and theoretical learning, along with on the job training by managing projects for a sponsoring company.
  • Wentworth Institute of Technology has a 2 semester co-operative education program with an optional 3rd semester in the students sophomore summer. Every student in the Institute is required to do 2 co-ops. Co-operative education has been active since 1975 with over 1 thousand students in a coop each year.

See also


This article incorporates text from the ERIC Digests article "New Directions for Cooperative Education" by Sandra Kerka, a publication in the public domain.

  • Auld, Robert B. (1972), "The Cooperative Education Movement: Association of Cooperative Colleges", Journal of Cooperative Education 8 (5): 24–27, ISSN 0022-0132 
  • Barton, Paul E. (1996), Cooperative Education in High School: Promise and Neglect, Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service  (ED 400 413)
  • Carlson, Ann (1999), "Co-op Planet: Organizations at N.U. Plant Co-op's Seeds Far and Wide", Northeastern University Magazine 24 (5), May 1999,, retrieved 2005-07-12 
  • Cates, Cheryl and Cedercreutz, Kettil [Ed.] (2008), Leveraging Cooperative Education to Guide Curricular Innovation, The Development of a Corporate Feedback System for Continuous Improvement, Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation, Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Crow, C. (1997), "Cooperative Education in the New Millennium", Cooperative Education Experience, Columbia, MD: Cooperative Education Association, pp. 1–5  (ED 414 433)
  • Derousi, P.; Sherwood, C. S. (1997), "Community Service Scholarships: Combining Cooperative Education with Service Learning", Journal of Cooperative Education 33 (1): 46–54, Fall 1997  (EJ 565 927)
  • Finn, K. L. (1997), "The Spaces Between: Toward a New Paradigm for Cooperative Education", Journal of Cooperative Education 32 (2): 36–45, Winter 1997 
  • Freeland, R. M.; Marini, R. C.; and Weighart, S. Moving Partnerships between Co-op Institutions and Co-op Employers into the Next Century. Journal of Cooperative Education 33, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 17-27.
  • Furco, Andrew (1996), "Service Learning and School-to-Work", Journal of Cooperative Education 32 (1): 7–14, Fall 1996 
  • Grubb, W. Norton; Badway, Norena (1998), Linking School-Based and Work-Based Learning: The Implications of LaGuardia's Co-op Seminars for School-to-Work Programs, National Center for Research in Vocational Education  (ED 418 230)
  • Grubb, W. Norton; Villeneuve, Jennifer Curry (1995), Co-operative Education in Cincinnati, Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education 
  • John, J. E. A.; Doherty, D. J.; Nichols, R. M. (1998), "Challenges and Opportunities for Cooperative Education", Journal of Cooperative Education 33 (2): 10–16, Winter 1998 
  • Ricks, F. (1996), "Principles for Structuring Cooperative Education Programs", Journal of Cooperative Education 31 (2-3): 8–22, Winter-Spring 1996  (EJ 524 105)
  • Ricks, F.; Cutt, J.; Branton, G.; Loken, M.; Van Gyn, G. H. (1993), "Reflections on the Cooperative Education Literature", Journal of Cooperative Education 29 (1): 6–23, Fall 1993  (EJ 475 316)
  • Schaafsma, H. (1996), "Reflections of a Visiting Co-op Practitioner", Journal of Cooperative Education 31 (2-3): 83–100, Winter-Spring 1996  (EJ 524 109)
  • Stockbridge, Frank Parker (April 1911), "Half Time At School And Half Time At Work: Cooperative Education, The Plan Of The University Of Cincinnati", The World's Work: A History of Our Time XXI: 14265–14275,, retrieved 2009-07-10 
  • Smollins, John-Pierre (1999), "The Making of the History: Ninety Years of Northeastern Co-op", Northeastern University Magazine 24 (5), May 1999,, retrieved 2005-07-12 
  • Van Gyn, G. H. (1996), "Reflective Practice: The Needs of Professions and the Promise of Cooperative Education", Journal of Cooperative Education 31 (2-3): 103–131, Winter-Spring 1996  (EJ 524 110)
  • Varty, J. W. (1994), "Cooperative Education for the '90s and Beyond", Co-op/Experience/Co-op 5 (1): 10–11, March 1994 (EJ 478 859)
  • Wilson, James Warner; Stull, W. A.; Vinsonhaler, J. (1996), "Rethinking Cooperative Education", Journal of Cooperative Education 31 (2-3): 154–165, Winter-Spring 1996  (EJ 524 112)

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