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The added value of cooperative education programs

By Miriam Weisz - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

Co-operative education (co-op) is a form of work-integrated learning that involves university undergraduate students undertaking full-time paid and discipline-related employment as a structured part of their program of study. Co-op programs provide learning opportunities for students that enable them to integrate their work and their academic experiences. Such opportunities, provided that a number of conditions are met, can lead to deep-level learning, whereby students engage in and interact with the learning material so that the material is integrated into their knowledge and personal understanding.

Whether or not deep-level learning occurs through co-operative programs depends on various factors including the learning opportunities provided by co-op employers, the students’ own commitment and ability to learn, and the commitment of university staff to support this learning. Insufficient resourcing of co-op programs by universities and ultimately the government places a major constraint on the programs’ potential effectiveness in bringing about the desired learning outcomes for students. This is particularly the case in Australia where universities are under enormous pressure from reduced government funding and the long-term sustainability of co-op programs is under threat.

To justify more funding for co-op programs, clearly identified and measured outcomes associated with undertaking co-op are needed. To date, most measurement of these outcomes has taken place in North America, with studies generally focused on the outcomes for one or two stakeholder groups. The results of many of these studies have been limited and very mixed; with some providing evidence that supports co-op and others providing evidence that does not. Little work has been done to estimate the costs associated with running co-op programs.


Some recent Australian research asked: what is the added value of a cooperative education program? To measure this, learning and employment outcomes of students and graduates, the majority of whom were enrolled at two Melbourne universities, only one of which provides a compulsory co-op program, were matched against each other. Most of the graduates had completed an Economics, Finance or Commerce degree.

This study found that co-op led to fewer students adopting a surface approach to learning. However, the shift from students adopting a surface approach to students adopting a deep approach to learning as a result of co-op was not as great as expected. This may have resulted in part from the lack of funding necessary to provide the level of learning support required to bring about these learning outcomes. There is, however, evidence to suggest that co-op has a significant impact on the academic performance of students and particularly for those whose academic performance pre co-op was low.

When employment outcomes for co-op graduates and non co-op graduates were analysed, it was found that 90% of co-op graduates, compared to only 19% of non co-op graduates, found discipline-related employment within one month of actively seeking a job. Furthermore, co-op graduates took an average of two weeks to find employment whereas non co-op graduates took an average of three-and-a-half months.

There is evidence that employers recognized, through increased salaries, the benefit of the co-op year over and above the experience that can be gained from summer placements, traineeships and post co-op discipline-related work. While the starting salary for co-op graduates was significantly higher than for non co-op graduates, this difference disappeared when both cohorts had the same number of years of industry experience. Even though this result, which is consistent with other studies, appeared not to demonstrate the increased salary advantages associated with co-op, another factor needed to be taken into consideration: the co-op graduates had a range of academic achievements yet their graduate employment outcomes were at least the same as those for the non co-op graduates who were all academic high-achievers.

The impact that co-op has on the achievement of relevant strategic goals and key performance indicators specified by the co-op university was considered and an estimation was also undertaken of the cost of providing this co-op program over and above the government funding received for its support.

It was found that while the co-op program attracted students with the same university entry score as the non co-op program, the non co-op graduates would, with hindsight, have chosen a co-op degree. This suggests that the pool of quality students applying for entry into the university offering co-op programs could be increased with more effective marketing of co-op to secondary school-leavers. Academic progression rates and retention rates, two university key performance indicators, were high for co-op students and co-op was a significant factor in achieving the university objective of graduate employability.


While co-op has had a significant impact on the achievement of relevant university goals, it was also found that the university that offers co-op incurs a funding shortfall. This amounted to a total funding shortfall of $41,600 for the 32 co-op students included in this study. One option that is available to the university to find support for the long-term financial sustainability of co-op programs is to seek a share of the significant cost savings experienced by the two other major stakeholders in a co-op program – the government and the employers of co-op graduates.

The estimated savings in graduate recruitment costs as a result of co-op students returning to companies as graduate recruits varied between $19,000 and $51,000 for sample of co-op students in this study who returned to their co-op companies as graduate recruits. The impact of co-op on social welfare payments made by the government was also quite significant. It was estimated that co-op led to savings of approximately $15,000 in social welfare payments for every co-op graduate - the total social welfare payments made to all the non co-op graduates being $147,000 higher than the total social welfare payments paid to the co-op graduates included in this study. To achieve these benefits of co-op, the government funds co-op programs at a rate of $1,800 per student.

In conclusion, while there is a need to extend the research into the added benefits of a cooperative education program to a longitudinal study also covering other discipline areas, there is evidence to show that improved academic and employment outcomes occur for co-op graduates compared to non co-op graduates. There is also evidence of significant cost savings that accrue to the Australian Federal Government and to graduate employers as a result of co-op. If these data can be used to transfer resources to the universities that provide these programs then greater efforts can be made to direct the resources in a way that will further enhance the learning and the employment outcomes for co-op graduates.

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About the Author

Dr Miriam Weisz is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Economics and Finance, RMIT University.

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