Provost Perspective: The Power of a Co-op

Undertaking a Co-op is a wonderful opportunity provided here at UMass Lowell. Here at the Career & Co-op Center, we actively work with academic departments to share the benefits of this experience, but we aren’t the only ones.
Joe Hartman, provost and vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at UMass Lowell is also a huge advocate of all a co-op has to offer and why, if you are an eligible student, you should think about applying for the Co-op Program.

Read provost Hartman’s perspective below and if you’d like to learn more about Co-ops yourself, feel free to attend of one the many information sessions we are hosting this fall.

The Benefits of Professional Co-op

It is probably obvious that taking on a professional co-op while pursuing a degree provides the opportunity to work in the field and put applicable experience on a resume. Furthermore, a co-op affords the opportunity to evaluate a potential career path and a potential future employer in a defined employment sector. This information can be valuable input when one is faced with making an occupation choice upon graduation.

But one should not discount the value of earning a paycheck.

According to a recent survey, roughly 3-out-of-4 UMass Lowell students are employed, with a large percentage working over 30 hours per week to pay for college. While this does help finance education, working nearly full-time makes it difficult for a student to complete the required number of credits each semester to graduate on time. That is, instead of taking 15 credits or more in a semester, students take a lighter load so they can work more hours.

But the problem goes beyond just taking a reduced load – working so many hours outside of the classroom detracts from time that could be spent on homework, studies, and projects. This reduced time to devote to studies can lead to poor, even failing grades and repeating classes. The cascading effects should be clear as graduation is pushed out further and further into the future. Even if one can muddle through the program, GPAs can be destroyed, making it challenging to land that great job upon graduation.

If there ever was a case for co-op education, this is it. Let’s do the finances.

Let’s assume you register for 12 credits per semester because you want to work 30 hours per week to pay for tuition and fees. You land a retail position paying minimum wage, or $15 per hour in Massachusetts, for a total of $450 per week, which will result in about $375 per week in take-home pay. Over the course of one semester (roughly 16 weeks with exams), this will total $6000 of take-home pay. Not bad – as over two semesters, this will cover roughly 70% of the in-state tuition and fees at UMass Lowell. Working full-time over the summer will cover the remainder.

But wait. Let’s assume for a minute that the work truly got in the way of studies, such that the 24 credits, already at least six shy of what is needed in a given year to graduate in four years, is really only 18 credits of work towards the degree because you had to drop one class each semester. Those 12 credits (6 dropped and 6 not attempted) are now an additional semester on campus – wiping out nearly all the money earned over the year.

How about the co-op option? Take six months and get a job in your field. In many fields, this can easily mean $22 per hour. At full-time, this is $880 per week or about $700 take-home per week. Let’s assume 24 weeks, such that the total take-home pay is $16,800 –enough to cover one full year of in-state tuition and fees at UMass Lowell. For the other six months, you do not work, so you can take 18 credits during the semester and another 6-9 credits in the six-week summer session before you return to work. With no other distractions, odds are you will probably complete those courses successfully.

The only tradeoff now is: do you want to graduate in four years? Or do you want to graduate debt-free? If graduating in four years is important (and it is!), then the six-month position cannot be repeated (although an additional 3-month summer experience is possible), and summers are now dedicated to school. But the 9 months of work looks great on the resume, and earnings will go a long way in paying down debt. If stretching the time to graduation is OK, then the six-month experience can be repeated numerous times, driving that debt down toward zero.

So, leave that minimum-pay job to someone else during the semester—Ace those classes, and land that great co-op job! The results will be evident in your pocket and on your transcript.

By Rae Perry
Rae Perry Director, Cooperative Education and Experiential Learning