Here’s how cooperative education programs cut student loan borrowing

For college students who want to cut costs and limit student debt, enrolling in a university with cooperative education programs could be an opportunity that reduces student loan borrowing while offering real-world learning experiences.

So, what is a cooperative education program? Cooperative education (co-op) allows a student to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to an actual job. Students will often work in a position within their area of study while earning compensation and credit toward their degree.

Co-op experiences are career-oriented and compensated. They require academic preparation, faculty mentorship and assessment, and guided student reflection that integrates the experience to student learning goals and their academic curriculum.

The University of Cincinnati invented cooperative education more than 100 years ago and continues to innovate all aspects of experience-based learning, including internships, service learning, virtual co-ops, community projects and industry partnerships. Today, UC offers co-ops in nearly every corner of the globe, from co-ops at Fortune 500 companies to trailblazing experiences in places like China, Morocco and South America.

Check out some of the ways that cooperative education programs will reduce your student loans while you’re still in college.

  • Gaining on-the-job experience and making connections
  • Earning while in college and finishing college earlier
  • Increasing employability

Gaining on-the-job experience and making connections

For students who co-op during their college experience, they are guaranteed paid work experience — an opportunity that allows them to offset the cost of a college education. Not only are they learning valuable skills, but they’re building a resume that will set them up for a lucrative and successful career after graduation. Formal cooperative education is an educational model in which a student alternates traditional academic semesters with semesters spent working full-time in the field. The work is paid, full-time (at least 35 hours per week) for 15 to 18 weeks at a time, related to the student’s major, supervised and evaluated.

Tanner Van De Veer came to UC from a small rural community in Washington, Illinois, and completed his most recent co-op with Toyota-Boshuko in Japan. Through cooperative education, he worked at glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois, Milwaukee Tool, boat maker Boston Whaler, and Priority Design. After graduation, he’ll join Chrysler as a design apprentice with a long-term goal of working in automotive design.

“Co-op enabled me to gain real world experience that is vital for a career in design and even led to my first product on the market," Van De Veer said.

While on co-op at UC, students pay a co-op fee instead of tuition tied to credit hours. The co-op fee is substantially less than the cost of full tuition. Paying the fee allows you to maintain your full-time student status, which is important for keeping financial aid and student health insurance.

So, while you’re off gaining experience and making connections, you’re saving money on tuition and student loans and earning a competitive salary while you do so. UC also offers part-time co-ops and micro co-ops, giving nearly every student the chance to experience the value of cooperative education in some form.

Earning while in college and finishing college earlier

On average, students can earn $1,700 to $2,500 per month while on a co-op assignment. Each co-op employer sets the wage and pays the student. Just like salaries, co-op wages vary by field, industry, and level of experience. UC is ranked fourth in the nation for co-op and internships (U.S. News Best Colleges 2022), and students earn a collective $58 million annually working for thousands of employers including GE Aviation, Disney, Toyota, Kroger, Procter & Gamble and many more.

Because co-ops allow students to balance work and studies throughout their college years, they build an availability of funds to offset the cost of student loans. And, earnings made through cooperative education programs will not be considered by FAFSA when determining a student’s eligibility for need-based aid.

Depending on how a cooperative education program arranges professional work positions and coursework, students can still earn their baccalaureate degree in less than five years. In fact, some schools with robust co-op programs say that students who participate in co-ops finish their bachelor's degree in less time than average, which can result in the need to take on less debt.

Increasing employability

Brianna Karelin, a native of Columbus, Ohio, was a fantastic Construction Management student at UC. Her last co-op was with Helix Electric in Oakland, Calif., where she developed a process that saved Helix a significant amount of money. The company quickly offered her a full-time job, which she accepted.

There are thousands of stories just like Brianna’s that show the power of co-op. When students are immediately employed after graduation, paying off student loans quickly becomes an easier task.

Although co-op employers are not required or expected to offer full-time jobs after graduation, sometimes the student’s performance and the employer’s hiring needs align. Every year a number of students receive full-time job offers from co-op employers as they approach graduation. Students who participate in cooperative education graduate with a stacked resume, robust on-the-job learning experiences, and the opportunity to earn competitive wages before they graduate.