It’s no secret that college students are bringing home more than a degree when they graduate. The average indebted graduating senior was $17,600 in debt on graduation day last year, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, while a Detroit News examination of national college loans found that over the last two years student borrowing has risen 38 percent. However, college students dreaming of big bucks have a real opportunity to graduate nearly debt-free, while earning real work experience and gaining college credit.
Instead of toiling in front of pizza ovens or earning meager wages at a university library, students at approximately 500 college campuses can earn an average of $15,000 by participating in cooperative education programs within their university. Not to be confused with an internship, co-ops are paid positions that ensure students are paid a day’s pay for a day’s work, says Mary Reilly, author of a book, pending publication, on co-op education.
“The cash is important because it has a way of making sure both employers and students make the most of their experience,” Reilly says.
The opportunity has made college more enjoyable for students like Stephanie Grima, a corporate communications and public relations student at the University of Michigan (Dearborn), who earned $15.11 per hour during her co-op at State Farm Insurance and about $22,000 from co-ops, overall. She has found that she can afford to do things that she wants to do, even while graduating without debt and purchasing a new car with her earnings.
“I know so many of my friends who have graduated in debt and are getting paid minimum wage waitressing,” Grima says.
In fact, co-op education increases students’ chances of finding employment in their job market – lessening the chance that those years of effort won’t disintegrate into minimum wage jobs. According to the National Commission for Cooperative Education, more than 50,000 employers and 80 of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies actively participate in co-op education. Moreover, more than 60 percent of students take permanent jobs with their co-op employers, while more than 95 percent of co-op students will find employment immediately after accepting their diploma, the commission has found.
Other students, like Natalie Eshman, an operations management student at the University of Cincinnati, are getting a jump on life by co-oping. Eshman says she pursued a co-op because of the workplace experience and got it when Delta asked her to be a project manager for a nationwide safety initiative. At the same time, she earned about $15,000 from her co-ops and plans to invest a third of the money into real estate.
“I have a few friends from high school who have always worked part-time jobs and think that I’m lucky,” she says.
Earning enough money to pay bills and live comfortably while in college has less to do with luck than by placing a phone call at their university. While many programs require students to co-op, many others require them to make the first step, says Cheryl Cates, professional practice associate director at the university. Interested students should be aware that while many universities may advertise a co-op program, it is not always the same thing.
“It’s going to vary from university to university; you need to make sure you ask the right questions on the way in,” Cates says. “If a university says they have a co-op program, ask them what exactly it means.”
It may mean that the college has as little as a job-posting board, where students can find out where to send résumés if a potential employer “bothers to call in.” However, for the nation’s 500 accredited co-op programs it means a lot more.
“On the other hand, it could mean that we take on the responsibility,” Cates says. “If you come in the office, we will work on your résumé, we send it out for you, we broker with employers.”
Depending on where students are regionally located, co-ops where an advisor plays “match-maker” may be easier or harder to locate. The Northeast and the Southeast are stronger than the Midwest, Cates says, while “the West is not very strong at all, as far as co-ops are concerned.”
© 2008, Young Money Media, LLC. All rights reserved.