How Co-op Differs From Internships

An internship – as valuable as it may be – is often a one-shot deal.  It may last no more than a single summer.  It may be paid or unpaid.  It may or may not relate directly to a student’s major. 


, as it was invented at the University of Cincinnati in 1906, is a deliberately sequential, ongoing experience provided to students.  A co-op adviser works with a student throughout that student’s academic career, finding that student a progression of five to seven professionally paid positions that incorporate steadily increasing levels of learning, responsibility and pay.  The cash is important because it has a way of making sure both employers and students make the most of the experience.

When it’s all added up at graduation, most UC co-op students are graduating with about a year-and-a-half of experience that was carefully planned to take him or her from inexperience to a high level of professional competence.   Then, more than 60 percent of co-op students nationally accept permanent jobs from their co-op employers, and 95 percent find jobs immediately upon graduation. (Figures from the National Commission for Cooperative Education.)

Need an example?  Let’s look at UC’s interior design and architecture programs, respectively ranked #1 and #2 in the country.  A student in these programs will begin co-opping at the end of his sophomore year.  During that initial co-op, he’ll probably be entrusted with a lot of computer-aided design (CAD) duties.  He’ll then steadily progress while alternating co-op work quarters with academic quarters until the senior year.  By that time, he’s likely to be working as a project manager responsible for all aspects of his employer’s work load.


  • Co-op is integrated into the academic curriculum while most internships are add-ons to the curriculum.

  • Co-ops begin early in the student's academic career, typically on the sophomore level.  Internships are often a capstone experience that comes at the end of a student's courses.

  • Thus, co-op affects students' attitudes in their courses because the experience gained is brought back into the classroom at a formative stage. 

  • The paid positions required of co-op ensure that students are do a day's work for a day's pay.  Many unpaid internships place students in an observer role.

  • Co-op constitutes a significant portion of a student's undergraduate experience.  At UC, those who co-op do so for 40-percent of their undergraduate time.  Internships generally constitute a relatively insignificant portion -- timewise -- of the undergraduate experience.

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