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Co-Op Programmes for International Students: Everything You Should Know

POSTED ON 11/27/2023 BY The Red Pen

Undergraduate student

College graduates often face a classic conundrum: Employers want candidates with work experience. But how do you get experience without a job? Co-op programmes often provide the perfect solution.  A dynamic fusion of classroom learning and paid work experience, these programmes have become integral to modern education. In this comprehensive guide, we explore the essence of co-op programmes, distinguish them from internships, highlight their benefits, and address key considerations for international students pursuing co-op opportunities in the US and Canada. 

What are Co-op programmes?

Co-op (short for cooperative education) programmes represent collaborative three-way partnerships involving employers, universities, and students to provide immersive real-world work experiences. These programmes enable students to switch a study term with a paid work term. Whether you earn credit or not depends on individual college policies. While Northeastern University and Virginia Tech do not offer credits, other institutions such as Georgia Tech and the New Jersey Institute of Technology offer two to three credits. Typically, students alternate between four months of coursework and four months of full-time employment with an organisation.

According to Herman Schneider, who pioneered the co-op model at the University of Cincinnati, “Co-op is a natural method of arriving at a suitable type of work, an opportunity to gain a maximum of educational content from his industrial environment, an understanding of human factors in the industry, acquisition of certain disciplinary values as a result of his shop experience, and acquisition of certain economic values.”

Several universities worldwide offer the dynamic co-op model of education. However, the University of Waterloo in Canada operates the world’s most extensive undergraduate co-op programme, with nearly 20,000 co-op students enrolled over three semesters in more than 120 programmes.

Co-ops, such as the art and design programme at the Rochester Institute of Technology, are optional. Conversely, programmes like the engineering co-op at the University of Toledo and the University of Victoria are mandatory.

Students may work up to 35 or 40 hours per week during the co-op term in the US. For instance, at Purdue University, you accumulate 12-22 months of practical experience before graduation. Several universities provide international exposure through their co-op programmes. For instance, Northeastern University offers a leading global experience with over 3,100 partner connections spanning all seven continents.

What are college internships?

Similar to co-op programmes, internships enable students to test-drive potential careers or job roles while still in their academic years. These programmes are popular among undergraduate and graduate students, serving as a platform for them to start honing the professional skills essential for their future careers. While some internships offer compensation, many do not. Typically, students pursue internships to gain real-world experience. Typically, most colleges do not provide credit for internships. However, some programmes may offer department-level credits. The duration of internships can vary significantly, ranging from six weeks to several months, and can occur during the academic year, summer, or winter breaks. When internships are conducted during the academic year, it’s important to note that the time spent working does not replace time spent attending classes. Therefore, internships must be flexible enough to allow students to meet their academic commitments, leading most students to opt for part-time internships.

Co-op programmes vs. internships: What’s right for you? 

Co-op programmes and internships are powerful contenders for offering an immersive learning experience that enables students to bridge the gap between classroom knowledge and real-world application. Before selecting one, consider a few factors. For instance, if you’re uncertain about your major, an internship lets you explore diverse fields to help you discover your path. But if you’re sure of the field you want to pursue, a co-op programme offers a chance to work full-time, showing a more comprehensive understanding of the industry. While paid internships exist, they are rare. If money is a priority, a co-op programme may be more suitable. A co-op programme is a better fit for those who anticipate challenges in balancing coursework and a job simultaneously since it gives you time off to work. However, you can opt for an internship if you can balance academic rigour and work commitments. To help you make an informed decision, here are a few key differences: 

Factors to considerCo-op programmesInternship
Time commitmentFull-time jobs for multiple terms, often between 6-12 months, alternating between academic semestersPart-time or full-time, typically shorter (2-3 months) and not tied to academic terms
PaymentUsually paid a full-time wage during work termsIt can be paid or unpaid, depending on the programme and company
College creditDepends on individual collegesRarely offered
Degree durationIt may extend the time to complete an academic degree, as students take semesters off for work terms.Typically, it does not add to the time required to obtain a degree, as internships often occur during breaks or summer/winter sessions
Work scheduleWork schedules may vary based on academic schedules and employer needsSix weeks or more
Flexibility Co-ops are full-time jobs where students cannot attend classInternships are part-time jobs where students can attend class
Field of studyPredominantly engineering majors, with some business majorsWidespread across various fields and majors, depending on industry
Application Via the career services department Via the career services department 

What are the benefits of co-op programmes?

Co-op programmes offer many benefits for students seeking to enrich their education and career prospects. Let’s explore seven key advantages of participating in co-op programmes and why you should consider participating in one: 

1) Strong employment prospects after graduation: 

Co-op programmes help students figure out their career interests, make connections in their chosen industry, learn essential skills, and build strong resumes. For example, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, 93 percent of students majoring in computing get valuable hands-on experience and have impressive resumes. Northeastern University’s co-op programme is just as successful, with 93 percent of graduates finding jobs within nine months of graduating. 

2) Industry experience before graduating

By engaging with industry experts, immersing yourself in professional work environments, gaining diverse perspectives, and applying your skills in real-world scenarios, you accumulate valuable career-focused experience. Co-op students are more likely to land prestigious, higher-paying jobs with starting salaries that are 15 percent higher than non-co-op graduates.

3) Earn a full-time salary: 

During your co-op work term, you’ll receive a full-time salary, allowing you to cover your educational and living expenses. In Canada, students typically make between $9,000 and $21,500 for a four-month work term. Some co-op programmes, like those with the Province of British Columbia, may even provide grants, such as the Pacific Leaders Tuition Grants for Co-op Employees, which can reimburse up to $1,000.00 in co-op tuition fees.

4) Exploring your chosen career path: 

Co-op placements provide a deep insight into industry dynamics and challenges, helping you assess different roles that align with your interests. They offer a valuable glimpse into your future. Ali Ziegler, a 2022 graduate in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati, shared, “My co-op rotations helped me land my full-time position before graduation, and I couldn’t be more thankful! Through my experiences, I learned about different departments that I love and others that I’d rather not continue in — learning what I didn’t like before graduation was very helpful.”

5) No tuition fee: 

During your co-op, there are no tuition charges. This is a significant advantage because it means you can focus all your energy and resources on developing your skills without the added financial burden of covering tuition expenses. It gives you a financial break and the freedom to fully immerse yourself in your co-op experience, knowing that your educational costs are temporarily set aside. 

6) Strong industry collaborations: 

Co-op programmes offer students unique opportunities to collaborate with influential global companies, with 86 percent of co-op employers willing to rehire their co-op students for future full-time positions. At the University of Toronto and the University of Cincinnati, students are hired by a wide range of organisations, from local to international, including renowned companies such as Microsoft, Ernst & Young LLP, and Fortune 500 giants like GE Aviation, Disney, Toyota, Kroger, Procter & Gamble, and many more.

7) Exceptional support: 

Co-op advisors are crucial in guiding students through the co-op experience. They provide ongoing check-ins, guidance, and invaluable support, ensuring students maximise their co-op opportunities. For example, the co-op advisors at the University of Waterloo offer career planning, co-op programme insights, résumé writing, interview prep, and networking opportunities for your success.

Co-op programmes for international students: What should you know? 

As an international student under F-1 visa status in the US, it’s important to note that you must complete one academic year and obtain proper authorisation from the Office of Global Services before participating in co-op. Specific co-op programmes, like the engineering co-op programme at Northwestern University, are classified as Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for F-1 visa students. However, CPT has a work experience limit of less than one year, allowing a maximum of four quarters, each lasting 12 weeks. Be ready for additional paperwork requirements from the international office.

As an international co-op student in Canada, obtaining a co-op work permit is essential before starting work. Apply for the permit promptly, as processing can take over three months. Typically, co-op work permits for international students are valid for one year, so you may need to renew them during your degree programme.

When considering admission to co-op colleges, remember that their eligibility criteria can differ from traditional colleges. While both look at academic requirements like GPA and standardised test scores, co-op programmes assess your suitability for work-integrated learning. Factors such as prior work experience, interviews, and portfolios can impact your admission chances. 

Co-op colleges often prioritise career readiness and your willingness to engage in hands-on experiences. For instance, at Tennessee Tech University, you must complete the Gold or Purple Career Readiness Certification Programme before participating in the mandatory co-op program. 

To make informed choices, carefully review the specific requirements of each institution, particularly if you’re interested in co-op programmes.

Which are 2024’s leading co-op colleges in the US and Canada?

UniversityLocationAcceptance RateCo-op programmes 
1Northeastern UniversityMassachusetts, US7%All majors
2Drexel UniversityPennsylvania, US80%All majors
3Berea CollegeKentucky, US25%Engineering, Computer Science
4Georgia Institute of TechnologyGeorgia, US17%All majors
5Rochester Institute of TechnologyNew York, US67%All majors
6University of CincinnatiOhio, US86%Business, Design, Engineering, and IT majors
7Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyMassachusetts, US4%Cyber Security, Engineering, and applied science majors
9University of WaterlooOntario, Canada53%All majors
10University of TorontoOntario, Canada43%Business, Arts, Science
11McGill UniversityQuebec, Canada47%All majors
12University of British ColumbiaBritish Columbia, Canada53%All majors
13University of AlbertaAlberta, Canada58%All majors
14Western UniversityOntario, Canada58%All majors
15University of CalgaryAlberta, Canada10%All majors 

Source: U.S. News and World Report’s rankings for 2024 and University Magazine Canada 2023

Co-op programmes offer college students a valuable blend of academic learning and real-world work experience, resulting in strong employment prospects and industry exposure. International students should be mindful of visa and work permit requirements when participating in these programmes in the US and Canada. You may also want to read our blog on breaking down the world of work. For more information on applying to colleges in the US and Canada, please contact us. We look forward to addressing your queries.