Cooperative education is a structured educational model in which students alternate between periods of classroom study on campus and periods of paid work at job sites away from campus. Cooperative education relates to career development because it is a means of career exploration that is a comprehensive intervention, including self-assessment, feedback, general and specific information about work, and career testing for long-term periods in real-world settings. Educational goals in such programs include integrating theory and practice, testing career options, and learning from experience. Although the model has historical roots in feudal apprenticeships, as well as medical and legal clinical programs, the term “cooperative education” was coined by Herman Schneider in 1906 to describe a means for educating engineers at the University of Cincinnati with alternating study and work. At about the same time, a similar idea called a sandwich educational program was developed in the United Kingdom. Schneider and other early adopters of the model claimed a common rationale for the innovation: to smooth the transition from school to work for students, a need identified by employers, students, and educators.
Some full models of cooperative, or co-op, education exist within the K-12 and postbaccalaureate educational sectors; however, undergraduate programs are the focus of most scholarly materials on the topic. Coop is a commonly used shorthand term for both the jobs taken by students and the students themselves.
The first half of the twentieth century saw a steady growth in the wider acceptance of the cooperative education model. Some important innovations included the adoption of the model for business students at the University of Cincinnati in 1919 and for students in all majors within a liberal arts program by Arthur Morgan at Antioch College in 1921. One way to cluster co-op programs is to differentiate vocational and environmental programs. In vocational programs, all co-op jobs taken are closely related to the student’s major, with planned and evaluated learning outcomes being career-related. In environmental programs, students are encouraged to take jobs that meet a variety of personal developmental and professional goals, so that some co-op jobs will be major related and some purposefully not. The former type is more common in pre-professional programs, such as in engineering and business schools in the United States and abroad; the latter tends to be used in liberal arts programs primarily in the United States.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the prevalence of cooperative education programs grew in the United States from about 60 colleges and universities to a peak of about 1,000 programs in the mid-1980s. Much of this growth has been attributed to federal funding from 1971 to 1996. Reviewers of this period of co-op history generally surmise that more planful growth, that is, growth with a greater focus on structures to enhance learning rather than a focus on increasing student recruitment, might have allowed the federal funding stimulus to promote more stable programs that might be considered leading-edge educational models today. As it is, the number of programs has diminished to about 500 in the United States, the smaller of which struggle for legitimacy within their academic environments. Internationally, cooperative education is practiced in about 60 countries worldwide, and that number is growing more rapidly than in the United States.
There has been a concomitant growth of various forms of experiential learning since the 1960s. In fact, it would be difficult to find a U.S. undergraduate program that does not require or allow some type of internship, practicum, or service learning experience.
Should all of these models of work-integrated learning be called cooperative education? Some practitioners in the field see the generic use of the term as a negative, a clouding of the definition; others argue that it is useful for cooperative education to be inclusive of diverse models. There is not a strong research base to distinguish among the educational benefits of various amounts and types of work-integrated learning, but there have been several noteworthy attempts to publicize and use attributes that distinguish cooperative education from other models of experiential learning as credentialing criteria. These attributes include how thoroughly co-op is institutionalized (e.g., evident in institutional literature), whether there are productive and effective relationships with faculty and employers, and whether there are clear means of evaluating the work experiences of students and integrating them with their classroom learning.
Organizations that were created in the 1960s to promote cooperative education include the Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA; http://www.ceiainc.org/) and the National Commission for Cooperative Education (NCCE; http://www.co-op.edu/), in addition to a variety of regional and state organizations. A more recent addition to the relevant associations includes the World Association for Cooperative Education (WACE; http://www.waceinc.org/), which promotes cooperative education and other forms of work-integrated learning internationally. These organizations promote co-op via professional conferences, research grants, awards, scholarships, and publications.
Although there is no single model of cooperative education programming, many programs share basic steps for job placement and crediting. Students are recruited into the program through internal marketing of the program; screened using GPA, year standing, or other criteria; aided with the development of resumes and other job application materials; advised about possible jobs that match their professional or personal goals; visited or supported in other ways while working; mentored at work by a job supervisor; and evaluated by the employer. The work term is reflected on and/or credited at the home campus through participating in a conference or focus group or submitting required written materials. Many co-op programs that follow the vocational model require students to return to the same employer for multiple terms, often with assignments of increasing sophistication; environmental co-op programs are more likely to encourage students to take various work assignments to learn a wide range of skills and enhance the development of adaptability and flexibility.
There is a history of research on cooperative education going back to the 1960s, with early research focused on models, structures, enrollment, and earnings. More recent studies tend to focus on learning outcomes, as the field has acknowledged that describing learning outcomes is necessary to ensure that classroom faculty support these programs. Research in the area can be clustered by focus: on outcomes for students, employers, educational institutions, and society in general.
Research on student outcomes from cooperative education is challenging in several regards. In most cases, when a co-op is optional, students self-select into programs, making it difficult to set up quasi-experimental treatment and control groups that are equivalent. Also, a university education entails so many variables designed to impact student development and late adolescence involves such rapid developmental changes that it is challenging to specify what value is added by a co-op program. Research on student variables can be focused on outcomes (what is learned), on processes of learning (how learning happens), or on the linkages between the two (how program structures lead to outcomes). The type focused on linkages is important to the field in order to distinguish it from career services, service learning, and other approaches, and for program improvement. Despite such challenges, researchers have found co-op work to impact classroom performance, such as increased motivation to study, learning how to learn, more disciplined thinking, and persistence to graduation. Work-related student benefits from co-op include an improved work ethic, increased technical knowledge and skill, networking opportunities, organizational problem solving, and job-specific written communications. Personal development outcomes demonstrated in research on co-op include enhanced decision making, maturity, recognizing there are many ways to accomplish tasks, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and value development. Career development has been shown in terms of enhanced career identity, career planning, and postgraduation promotions and salary increases.
Co-op programs also benefit employers. Studies conducted both in and outside the United States have shown higher yield rates and lower costs for employee recruitment; lower training, wage, and benefits costs; higher retention; and better work performance for employees who participated in co-op programs than those who did not. There is also some indication that employers can make more progress in meeting their affirmative-action hiring goals if they participate in co-op programs than if they do not. Some studies specify the traits of work supervisors that link to positive learning outcomes for students; for example, when supervisors take on the role of field faculty member, student learning is enhanced. Most of the benefits listed for students benefit employers indirectly as well. When the benefits demonstrated to students and employers are reviewed in concert, it appears that Schneider’s original rationale for smoothing the transition from school to work has been met by cooperative education. There is an emerging debate within the field about how to balance employer benefits with student benefits, especially with regard to ethical values, creative thinking, social change, and the implications of the demand for global competitiveness for social welfare systems.
The benefits to educational institutions of including a cooperative education program have also been documented, including increased enrollment, aid in meeting institutional performance benchmarks, involvement by employers in curriculum development that is relevant to industry needs, and productive links with institutions overseas from international co-op placements. Benefits listed above to students and employers also benefit educational institutions. For example, when co-op students perform well in local industry, various economic benefits can accrue to the university, such as an enhanced reputation in the community, research collaborations, grants, equipment and other donations, and facilities sharing.
Societal benefits determined by research include less reliance by co-op students than by non-co-op students on government support during school and in postgraduation unemployment benefits due to high employability and increasing productivity via the development of human capital. For emerging economies, important benefits include the opportunity for students to develop technical skills needed by industries, the transfer of technology via international coop placements, and the opportunity to replicate co-op models broadly due to government control of higher education.
A review of the research on cooperative education suggests that much of the work is atheoretical and may fail to present a coherent picture of the most important processes and outcomes of work-integrated learning for career and personal development. The learning theory of David Kolb and the philosophy of John Dewey are most frequently invoked, if any theory is invoked at all. One recommendation for future research is to cast a wider net among the various disciplines that relate to cooperative education. For example, there is a long and deep history of research within the vocational counseling profession on career exploration. Other disciplines that should be considered include labor economics (e.g., theories of human capital); developmental psychology (e.g., theories about epistemological development); the sociology of education (e.g., theories about cultural capital); and management (e.g., theories about organizational behavior). By focusing only on theories about experiential learning, co-op researchers miss the opportunity for the kind of cross-fertilization that would allow for a broader range of measures, methods, and theoretical interpretations than are currently utilized. Research collaborations with faculty from these disciplines would allow two goals to be achieved: (1) broaden the knowledge about cooperative education and support of it by classroom faculty and (2) broaden the theoretical bases from which hypotheses can be generated and tested.
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