Posted June 30, 2006 by

Internships vs Co-op Programs

An internship can be defined as “a period of apprenticeship when students work off-campus, under supervision, in a school, factory, hospital, business, laboratory, or government agency or program. It also allows students to learn practical applications of classroom material.” ( A co-op program, which most people would regard as being different, can be defined as a “college sponsored work/internship program.” (College Counseling Guidebook) So what’s the difference?
Even though you can’t readily tell from those definitions, internships are generally short-term relationships. They often last just weeks or perhaps a few months. Co-op relationships often last for years and are typically long-term relationships during which the student attends classes, takes a break for weeks or months to get practical training, goes back to classes for weeks or months, back to practical training, etc.
In the May 2006 issue of Campus Career Counselor, Co-Editor Peter Vogt asks why aren’t all schools co-op schools by requiring their students to participate in several full-fledged co-op experiences in order to graduate. He adds that he can’t find any downside to co-op programs other than they sometimes extend the period of time during which the student is enrolled in school, but that downside is easily offset by the phenomenal and vital practical experience that participating students accumulate by the time they graduate, contacts, and more. Employers love co-op programs because they lead to great hires (60 percent of co-op students accept jobs with their co-op employers). The same questions could be asked about why schools don’t require students to have fulfilled several full-fledged internships in order to graduate. Co-op or internship, I can see more and more schools requiring students to obtain such experience before they graduate. But would it be a good thing for schools to require that?

When I learn that a student or recent graduate is having a hard time finding career-related employment, I know that it is almost always due to one of two reasons: (1) they aren’t networking properly or (2) they haven’t invested in themselves to obtain practical experience in their career field prior to graduating. Co-op programs and internships both provide wonderful networking opportunities and by definition provide students with practical experience in their career fields. So shouldn’t schools require students to complete at least one co-op or internship program prior to graduation? I say no.
I do not feel that it is the responsibility of the schools to find rewarding employment for all of their students. Unless a school were to assume that monumental responsibility, they will essentially be creating an unfunded mandate by imposing an employment requirement upon students who may have no interest in being employed in that career field after graduation. For example, I went to law school (I’m fully recovered) and watched as many of my classmates graduates and took positions in non-legal fields. Did they value their law school education? Absolutely. But did they want to work as lawyers? Absolutely not. For my law school to have required them to complete a co-op or internship program in a legal position would have been damaging to those students because it would have taken time away from their preferred calling of starting their own business or working in some other non-legal position.
Schools should focus on education. They should not be asked to become parents to these young adults. Do they sometimes make mistakes? Absolutely. Should schools be paternalistic and do whatever they can to prevent these young adults from skinning their knees? Absolutely not. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn from their mistakes. If they don’t at the age of 22, then they will when they’re older and more likely to have a mortgage, a spouse, and kids. Better now than then.

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