Cooperative education is now more than 100 years old. The co-op approach, in which students alternate time in the classroom with professionally paid work directly related to their majors, was founded at the University of Cincinnati by Dean Herman Schneider in 1906. There are co-op programs today at 500 institutions in the United States.
The centennial marks a good time to take stock. How effective is co-op? What has been its impact on its three fundamental partners -- students, employers, and institutions of higher education? Is co-op still relevant? Still viable? What role should co-op play in 21st century education?
I see empirical evidence of co-op’s value every day at the University of Cincinnati. We have 3,800 students in 44 disciplines participating in co-op opportunities at more than 1,500 employers in 34 states and 9 foreign countries. At graduation, UC co-op students have an enviable head-start in their careers by virtue of their on-the-job work experience (an average of one-and-a-half years for UC students), marketable skills, impressive credentials, and networking connections. Many are hired immediately by the companies where they completed their co-ops.
Collectively, our co-op students earn about $35 million each year. Plain and simple, that money helps students pay for college. Moreover, if those dollars came in the form of scholarships, it would necessitate a university endowment totaling $875 million. In short, we would have to nearly double our endowment to support the program.
Beyond those signs of success, of course, our co-op students benefit from blending classroom learning with experience in the workforce -- applying theory to practice, as one researcher summarized it. Theirs is the ultimate school-to-work transition. And at the nexus where co-op takes place, benefits also accrue to participating employers and the sponsoring university.
We have long known of these benefits anecdotally. Over the past 20 years, a series of small studies have started to confirm co-op’s value in data. Overall the field needs broader studies and better longitudinal analysis, but the research that has been conducted to date tells a remarkably consistent story. Studies show definitively, for example, that co-op experiences help students explore career options, clarify goals, and find mentors. There’s now statistical evidence that co-op motivates students to learn and study, leads to higher GPAs, and improves individual self-confidence. There is further documentation of the value of co-op in improving individual communications and human relations skills. That’s all in addition to findings that co-op alumni get higher salary offers than their non-co-op peers.
Abstracts from over 40 years of research are available online. 
Studies also now confirm the benefits of co-op for employers. Co-op serves as an effective screening and selection process in the recruitment of new talent and it leads employers to workers who are typically more motivated and more productive than other recruits. Co-op also has a positive effect on employee retention and productivity.
In its “Job Outlook 2005,” the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that employers complain continually that too many new college graduates lack maturity, don’t know how to conduct themselves in a business environment, and don’t have an appropriate work ethic. Those are skill sets that co-op students develop during their education. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that estimates of the number of co-op employers -- including Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations -- have jumped in recent years from 50,000 to more than 120,000. Not surprising, either, is that such organizations as the Education Commission of the States and the State Higher Education Executive Officers have called for improved postsecondary attention to the school-to-work transition, which of course is at the heart of co-op education.
Colleges and universities benefit from co-op, too. Co-op students enhance learning by infusing classroom discussions with real-world experiences -- sometimes leading faculty to reform curricula.
In 2006 the highly ranked architecture program at my university combined employer feedback with faculty observations from the classroom and resolved to focus on the enhancement of students’ building construction skills. Similarly the civil engineering program used employer feedback as well as input from their accrediting body to redesign the curriculum to enhance students’ understanding of the fundamental concepts of structural analysis.
By its inherent nature, co-op leads institutions of higher education to better relationships with business, which in turn opens new doors for fundraising and partnerships beyond co-op. Another practical benefit is in student recruitment. Pace University found that a full half of incoming students were attracted to the university by its co-op opportunities. What’s more, their study showed, the student retention rate for those in the co-op program was 96 percent, compared to 52 percent for the institution as a whole. Other studies corroborate co-op’s positive impact on student retention.
Co-op programs drive colleges and universities to be continually innovative in curricula and learning processes in response to employers’ needs. In fact, a study under way at the U.S. Department of Education is helping document that co-op education is emerging as one of the few educational approaches that can help curricular development keep pace with industry needs. It may be time, then, for the U.S. Congress, as it works on re-authorizing the Higher Education Act, to take a fresh look at how co-op education can help enhance college affordability and ensure the relevance of higher education in the new century.
Our neighbors to the north have the right idea. The Province of Ontario offers up to 15 percent tax breaks for companies hiring co-op students. Tax incentives for companies employing co-op students could be the best way of increasing the participation in cooperative education. Tax breaks treat all sectors of industry equally, and are less likely to skew the production of graduates towards segments without a solid employment market.
One hundred years after co-op was created at the University of Cincinnati, our Professional Practice program is leading a $1 million study that will help create the next generation of co-operative education. We’re looking for ways to link measures of student performance in co-op with corporate feedback and curricular reform. Our work is just one of a number of current efforts looking to make co-op stronger pedagogically and even more relevant -- efforts, for example, to reinforce student learning through improved self-reflection, and to link co-op more deliberately with experiential and service learning.
The co-op approach creates necessary bridges between work and learning, between liberal education and professional education, and between universities, government, and business. Moreover, co-op prepares students extraordinarily well for work -- and life -- in today’s fluid, fast-paced, and globally interdependent workplace. By the time they graduate, co-op students have a firsthand perspective on international competition, business ethics, workplace diversity, corporate cultures and more. As we prepare students for their roles in the 21st century, the benefits and attributes of co-op education have never been more relevant, or more urgently needed.
Nancy L. Zimpher is president of the University of Cincinnati. As a faculty member, Zimpher directed hundreds of student teaching experiences and recalls fondly her own initial “real world” experience -- as a student teacher.Â