Gigi Escoe, PhD, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and Dean, and Helen Chen, PhD, Associate Provost & Executive Director, University of Cincinnati Coop program

Navigating work opportunities is a challenge for most people, at any stage of life. With so many working adults struggling to find employment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more urgent than ever to help job seekers find work that aligns with their unique interests, skills, and abilities. But postsecondary institutions can sometimes be ill-suited to addressing skills development, let alone to providing  learners the opportunity to test and apply learning in real-work contexts. So, it’s no surprise that many learners find the identification of a future career path to be a frustrating, isolating, and even unattainable task.

Discovering what to do for work requires self-awareness, and parlaying one’s interests into experience requires opportunity. No matter where a learner is in their journey, whether a recent high school graduate or an experienced worker seeking a career change, there is great value in having an opportunity to try a new job and see how it fits. There is no clear ecosystem designed to connect the dots between learning and work. While internships and apprenticeship models have a long history, they are not always widely available.

The University of Cincinnati co-op program seeks to change that. In its traditional co-op program, which has been going strong for more than 100 years, students alternate academic semesters with semesters spent working full-time in a professional setting. During the co-op work semesters, students complete an online course to help with academic and professional development and pay a co-op fee that is substantially less than the cost of tuition. While traditional full-time co-op has roots in engineering, IT, business, design, architecture, and planning, newer iterations of co-op are more flexible, allowing students to work part-time while taking classes. Co-op opportunities have also broadened to include service-oriented work, research experiences, and project-based work. This ensures that co-op is an option for the diverse UC student population, which consists of 35,000 undergraduate students, and is tailored to each student’s particular academic program and goals.

UC is the top-ranked public university in the country for co-op and internships by US News and World Report. Annually, UC facilitates over 38,000 experiential learning placements. This number includes co-op as well as other experiential learning programs, including clinicals, student teaching, and service learning. More than 7,000 of these placements are full-time, traditional co-op placements through which students earned more than $75 million in wages last year. The UC co-op program is tightly integrated into the academic curriculum with strong institutional commitment, faculty input, employer evaluations, transcripts, grades, and rigorous student reflection. Co-op is centrally facilitated by the Division of Experience-Based Learning and Career Education, which is home to 40 faculty members and 30 staff members.

We met with Gigi Escoe, PhD, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and Dean, and Helen Chen, PhD, Associate Provost & Executive Director, to learn more about how the co-op program has evolved over the years.

Q: How did the co-op program come about and become such an integral part of the university?

In 1906, the Dean of the College of Engineering was looking at student data and he recognized that our students with work experience did well in the classroom. He also knew that our students would benefit from earned income. So that combination of motivations caused him to request permission from the Board of Trustees to open an experimental program where students worked for two weeks and then they went to school for two weeks and that cycle repeated. That was the birth of co-op. Every generation of UC students has seen a variation on the program as we’ve moved from a manufacturing economy to what is today a knowledge-based economy.

This is now part of our DNA. We believe this is the only way to do it, across every program, integrating experiential application of the curriculum. Work experience is not just pushed to the end of the degree, when you’re a senior and trying to get your resume together. For us, it’s a must-have for a successful experiential learning program.

Q: How has the co-op program changed with workforce demands? 

In recent years, we’ve expanded our thinking beyond traditional models, which tend to be based on full-time work placements at a company, for example. We’re starting to look at remote placement opportunities where corporations can hire our students to do their work on our campus or even from their dorm rooms. We’re looking at connecting a series of micro or gig assignments in a way that three or four might account for an entire experience. This would allow students greater flexibility in managing their school and work loads rather than forcing them to rotate between being full-time at work or school at any given time. We’re working on a variety of new models that are more flexible and reflective of where work is going.

Q: How do you collaborate with industry to retrain and upskill students?

In the last several years, we have really worked to increase our partnership with industry through our 1819 Innovation Hub within the Cincinnati Innovation District. We’re really listening to our industry partners. We recently met, for example, with one of our industry partners and they were talking about their workforce development needs. We are helping to think through how to design models for upskilling their existing employees, while at the same time attracting students to the company but creating a talent pipeline effort that begins even before college. We want to figure out how to help them build brand equity and interest students in working in the IT field, for example, at their company.

Recently, the Department of Labor announced UC as recipient of close to a $12 million workforce development grant called the Next Apprenticeship Program. We will be using the fundamentals of our co-op program, our learnings, and the relationships we have with on the order of 3,000 employers to build new ways of connecting with the university, new ways of upskilling, meeting students where they are. We might have students come back with completed baccalaureate degrees but who really need to upskill into a different or technical field.

Working with corporate sponsors such as Cincinnati Insurance Companies and different academies from IBM and other employers, we will put together a program that will count as a registered apprenticeship program, which opens doors to employment. That’s a new model and a new way for us to extend the co-op approach to meet new needs of employers and learners as they navigate continually between learning and work. We’re having conversations about students returning as adults for additional training or credentials and how we can leverage their prior work experience. It’s really important that our co-op model and all of our experiential learning programs have a lot of student reflection and engagement. So students aren’t only having experiences, but they’re coming to understand themselves through this experience and through their required assessments and reflections and the work they do with faculty and the feedback they get from companies.

Q: What are you most excited about in the evolving landscape for your students?

We are beginning to integrate career education more deeply into our general education program and are beginning to use technology to document students’ learning pathways, to help use this technology to facilitate students’ thinking about their past experiences and how those inform what they are learning, how to build their professional and learning network to work toward where they want to go with their career.

Integrating technology with this metacognition, student reflection of student learning is part of the university’s mission. Our division has been growing rapidly and has received a lot of national and local resources because UC is really committed to this idea and we’re investing in this concept rapidly. We’re very excited about the outcomes we’re seeing for our students. We’re seeing an incredible rise in retention and graduation rates and, even more importantly, we are seeing very high job placement rates of our students. We are making a huge impact on our community and employer partners and our students’ lives. This is what excites us the most.

Q: Has your approach changed in any way in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

UC’s focus is on flexibility, remote-work models, digital upskilling, and project-based work, and this has turned out to be very timely and even more important. As we respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Division of Experience-Based Learning and Career Education is ensuring UC students continue to gain market-valued skills and experiences that set them up not only for obtaining and succeeding in their first jobs, but also for thriving careers that will span decades. This approach requires multiple models that meet students and partners where they are during this crisis. We’re leveraging our strong partnerships with employers, community not-for-profits, the UC colleges, and the resources available through the Next Apprenticeship Program. We’re also augmenting on-site co-ops with digital skills training and industry-recognized credentials, project-based work, remote work, faculty-led research, and service-learning opportunities focused on community recovery. This summer, we anticipate more than 2,000 students will participate. We hope this positively contributes to the incredible challenges that lie ahead of all of us.