National Center for Research in Vocational Education
University of California, Berkeley


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Co-operative Education:
Lessons From the Cincinnati Model

The passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 substantially expanded interest in programs combining school-based and work-based learning. However, few such models exist in the U.S. from which individuals attempting to develop new programs might learn. One of the most long-lived and widespread co-op programs in the country is located in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

In Co-operative Education in Cincinnati: Implications for School-to-Work Programs in the U.S., authors W. Norton Grubb and Jennifer Curry Villeneuve report on the Cincinnati experiment in work-based learning and its lessons for others seeking to establish similar programs elsewhere.

Co-ops have flourished in Cincinnati for such a long time--close to 100 years--that educators and employers frequently cite this long history of practice as a key reason they have succeeded. However, the quality of these programs, more than any other factor, appears most responsible for their persistence. Of special note, employers and educators have an unspoken agreement that each will provide a high-quality contribution to co-op education. For employers this means a high-quality work experience, and for educators this means students well-prepared for the world of work.

Also key is the stable funding base for Cincinnati co-ops that comes from state aid to community colleges. Colleges receive such funding even when students are engaged in their off-campus assignments. In addition, placement rates for Cincinnati co-op students are very high. Between 60 and 90 percent are offered full-time jobs upon graduation, though this figure appears to vary as economic conditions and employment wax and wane.

The Nature of Cincinnati's Program

Currently, all the community colleges in the Cincinnati area offer students the opportunity to participate in co-op education. At the Ohio College of Applied Science (OCAS), a branch campus of the University of Cincinnati, co-op is mandatory. At Cincinnati Technical College (CTC) it is mandatory in business and engineering, and at Sinclair Community College in Dayton it is optional.

The most common co-op practice is the "alternating" model, in which students attend school for 10-13 weeks, and then work for the same period of time. At OCAS and CTC, almost all students follow this pattern. At Sinclair, by contrast, most programs follow the "parallel" model, which splits the day between school and work.

Employers who view co-op students as potential future workers tend to prefer alternating co-ops, because they are able to learn more about students' work abilities. They also tend to rotate their students so they are exposed to a wide variety of occupations within the firm, and often provide them other educational opportunities like seminars and workshops. Employers who view co-op students as a source of efficient, inexpensive labor often use parallel programs.

Selling the Co-op Concept

For Cincinnati employers, the principal benefit of co-op programs is the ability to prepare prospective future employees for their companies. They do this by training students on site, and by helping community colleges plan their training program curricula, including the specific learning, personal, and job-specific skills required of employees. Co-op placements serve as excellent screening mechanisms. They allow an employer to see personal attributes--including abilities like initiative, the ability to work in groups, and discipline--that are poorly measured except by direct observation.

Cincinnati educators agree that gaining skills and becoming familiar with work is the most valuable benefit of co-op training. Students, employers, and educators agree that it offers students a superior form of learning by enabling students to apply theory to practice. Since many Cincinnati co-op students are offered full-time employment upon graduation, it sometimes eliminates the need to look for work. For those who don't get a job with their co-op firm, it gives them valuable experience that is helpful in finding other employment. And co-op placements provide a powerful form of career exploration, allowing students to see what kinds of work they may--or may not--find appropriate. Co-operative education also helps instructors keep current with their field through their contacts with employers.

Quality is the Key to Success

One of the concerns about school-to-work programs is whether work placements will be of sufficiently high quality to provide real education to students, or whether students will simply perform routine tasks. In Cincinnati, both employers and educators take steps to ensure relatively high program quality. Once this high-quality equilibrium is established, it creates incentives for each side to maintain quality; otherwise, students will not enroll and employers will not provide jobs.

The process of selecting co-op students for work placements is a joint one. Employers have the final say, but many rely heavily on the colleges to select the students most appropriate for them. College co-op programs vary in their admission requirements, which may include certain high school courses and particular scores on standard college admissions tests. OCAS and CTC offer only vocational programs, thus attracting students who intend to prepare for employment. At both schools, students must be enrolled in programs and not just a series of unrelated courses, in order to participate in co-ops. This practice eliminates students who are unsure of their purposes or uncommitted to postsecondary education. However, every college has some remedial efforts in place so that motivated students who are underprepared can still gain admission.

The major shortcoming of the Cincinnati co-op programs is that little data exists about their long-term effects. Most available information focuses on short-term issues such as the number of students placed per term, or the number of employers involved. This is because neither the employers nor the colleges have formal evaluation procedures. However, informal data indicates the programs are highly effective. The only reason ever given by an employer for discontinuing co-op participation was downsizing. Approximately 93 percent of OCAS students find employment the first few weeks after graduation, and most employers claim to hire between 60 and 90 percent of their co-op students.

Implications

Cincinnati's success with co-ops appears linked to its emphasis on quality programs. It offers other sites the following lessons:
  1. Educational institutions must be as committed to their school-to-work programs as they are to other academic and degree-granting programs.
  2. Employers should be encouraged to see work-based education as an approach that develops the full potential of each student, and to view co-op students as potential employees rather than as cost-effective labor.
  3. Co-op programs require a stable funding base so they do not have to rely on grants, contributions from employers, or other special funds that can dry up. Stable funding supports the co-op coordinators who keep these programs running smoothly.
  4. High quality standards on the part of employers and educators are best established and maintained in face-to-face contact and constant discussion between co-op coordinators and employer representatives.
  5. Establishing the culture and understanding of co-op education in Cincinnati has required steady development and stable policies over a long period. This cannot be accomplished in a short period of time or by stop-and-start support.

This product brief summarizes Co-operative Education in Cincinnati: Implications for School-to-Work Programs in the U.S., by W. Norton Grubb and J. C. Villeneuve, MDS-1045, $5.50. To order the complete report, call NCRVE's Materials Distribution Service at (800) 637-7652. Abstracts of all NCRVE publications may be viewed online at http://ncrve.berkeley.edu/ProdCat.html

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NCRVE is a consortium of eight institutions headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley, and supported by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education. Through research, development, and direct assistance to schools, we promote education that prepares all students for college, careers, and lifelong learning.