Co-Op Schools

By: Joseph Urbano

Campus Sherpa Blog Contributor, RIT

Some schools are known for their architecture. Others are known for their academic rigor. Athletics are at the heart of others. I go to the Rochester Institute of Technology, or RIT, which is best known for its co-op program. Co-op schools include Northeastern, RIT, and Drexel, but certainly aren’t limited to those. Even if a university isn’t a “co-op university,” co-op is something you could pursue. So let’s talk about it.

As a student at RIT, I am quite familiar with how we go about our co-op program, but not so much about every other school. so you should still do your research! You shouldn’t assume all the details are going to be the same from school to school. Every school is different.

What is a co-op, anyway? Co-op stands for cooperative education, or, in other words, a paid internship. RIT requires all students in the College of Engineering and most students (depending on major) in the College of Computing and Information Sciences to spend 50 weeks of full time (40+ hour/week) employment in order to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, broken up into 3 blocks. Depending on the major, schedules may be more or less flexible for what specific semesters are required to be on co-op. As a chemical engineering student, I’m not granted much flexibility.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. We don’t call ourselves freshman, sophomores, juniors, or seniors because we’re not a four-year program. Spending a year on co-op means I spend 4 years in classes and a year on the job, and graduate in a total of five years. This is a decision that I made before I committed to RIT, understanding that I’ll be a year behind the vast majority of my high school friends.

Now, being a five-year program isn’t the only drawback to co-op. For me, here’s a list of the major ones:

  • Figuring out housing year-to- year. It’s kind of a nightmare. It helps to know upperclassmen who are going on co-op at different times than you are, and that’s the reason my situation is currently taken care of. However, struggling with the uncertainty of finding a place to live on a year-to- year basis is a considerable downside.
  • Summer vacation, after the first year, is a thing of the past. My first co-op block is around 6 months long and I’m very likely to hit the ground running from there. My parents are pretty unhappy that I won’t be able to go on family vacations with them anymore. Whoops.
  • Searching for a co-op is a stressful and challenging task, it isn’t easy. The silence on the end of employers a lot of the time is incredibly nerve wracking and very unsettling. I’ve applied to over 20 different companies and I’ve heard a definitive “no” from only 2 and a “we’ll likely give you an offer” from one. My co-op adviser likened searching for a co-op to being enrolled in an additional class. You need to spend the time every week or else you might not be satisfied with the result, and it’s a lot to juggle on top of my schedule.
  • There’s a sort of disconnect between the upperclassmen and incoming students. Because of co-op, a lot of the connections made between potential roommates and classmates really come from the first year, in my experience. The only real contact I have with upperclassmen is because of the clubs I’m a part of. So there are drawbacks, but yet I still chose RIT. And there are a lot of good reasons for it, too!
  • “Try before you buy.” As a chemical engineer, there are a lot of potential industries I can work in. Manufacturing, petrochemicals, food science, environmental cleanup, and much more. I plan on doing all three of my co-ops at vastly different places in order to figure out what I really enjoy doing and what company atmospheres I perform best in.
  • Career Readiness. I’m learning how to write a resume. I’m interviewing with employers. I’m attending career fairs. I’m applying to jobs online. I’m learning how to job search, and those skills are so crucial after obtaining my degree. There’s a reason why RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering has a very high job placement rate (over 90%) within six months of graduation.
  • Money. You’re not paying for 5 years of college. You’re paying for 4, like anyone else. And for that extra year, you’re getting paid. Sometimes a lot! I know someone making over $30/hr on his first co-op with his living and travel expenses paid (yeah, sometimes I wish I was in computer science). But that money can really help, whether it’s used on college or groceries or living expenses, an opportunity to earn a fair chunk of income is always welcome.
  • A Competitive Resume. When I walk into the job market I can tell every employer I interview with that I have a year of on-the- job experience for an entry level position. That’s one incredible leg up on the competition. And, on the other hand, if a company that I co-op with finds my employment extraordinary, they might offer to transition me to full time employment after graduation (this is a surprisingly common occurrence).

The co-op program wasn’t the only reason I chose RIT, but it was a major part of my decision. For me, having that slight edge in the job field is completely worth the extra year. In addition, getting to do that in an environment with much less risk than the professional sphere is worth the extra effort now. Hope you found this helpful! I’m happy with my decision but you should make sure you’re making the decision that’s right for you. It’s not for everyone!

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