For students who are trying to set themselves apart in a competitive job market, an internship or co-op can be a great way to gain work experience. These programs offer opportunities to get on-the-job training at a place of business in your chosen field. They also help students who are unsure about their career path get more information about what day-to-day life in that role would be like.

When trying to decide whether to pursue these programs, many students ask themselves the same question, “what is the difference between a co-op and an internship?” While both programs offer career advantages, an internship and a co-op can actually be very different experiences. When considering these programs, it’s essential to be familiar with the specific aspects of each to make the best choice for your situation.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a short-term program meant to offer work experience in a particular field. Usually, internship programs are designed for students who want to learn more about a particular career path. Internship programs also offer the chance to gain relevant skills in the host organization’s business area.

Internships are often part-time opportunities, and students may still take a full or partial course load during their internship program. Participating in these programs can help students decide if they want to continue pursuing a career in that field. It also provides valuable networking opportunities that can help a student line up a job in that field after graduation.

What is a Co-op?

A co-op is an educational strategy that combines periods of academic instruction with periods of hands-on practice in the workplace. “Co-op” is short for cooperative education, which hints at the mutually beneficial relationship between colleges and universities, students, and employers who participate in the co-op program.

Co-op students usually commit to working multiple terms for the same employer during their course of study. The student works with their higher learning institute to find a suitable employer program that meets their school’s requirements for completing the co-op program. Typically, the work terms alternate between school terms.

Consequently, students who enroll in co-op programs may take longer to complete their course of study. However, many students decide that the real-world experience, chance to gain skills, and networking opportunities they can earn with a co-op program more than make up for the extra time it will take for them to complete the degree.

You may have heard that co-op programs are more common for students studying in fields related to engineering and technology. While this is true, co-ops are available for almost every field of study. Colleges and universities often have well-defined, successful co-op programs and partnerships with specific employers in business, government, industry, and the arts.

Types of Co-op Programs

There are three main types of co-op programs. Since they differ significantly, make sure you know what type of co-op your program is before you commit to it.

Alternating Semester/Full-Time Programs

This is the most common type of co-op program. In these programs, you alternate one semester or quarter of academic coursework at your higher education institution with one semester or quarter of work-based learning at a specific employer’s place of business until graduation. Sometimes students work during the summers to cut down the time it takes to complete the program.

Usually, these types of co-op programs don’t begin until after the freshman year. This allows you to make friends and settle into the routine of academic life at your university for a full year before taking a semester break to work.

Parallel Part-Time Programs

The parallel part-time program offers students something more like a part-time job while they take classes instead of alternating semesters of work. Typically, students in these programs work 20 hours or less each week. These programs are less common but could be a good choice for students who don’t want to take extra time to finish a degree.

One-Semester Programs

The one-semester co-op program is ideal for students who can only commit a summer to working full-time. These programs are shorter, but still offer lots of work experience and the opportunity to make connections in your field. Be careful, though – employers sometimes use the terms “co-op” and “internship” interchangeably. So, you need to make sure that a one-semester program will meet your university’s requirements if you are enrolled in a co-op program.

Main Differences Between a Co-op and an Internship

As you can see from the preceding paragraphs, internships and co-ops feature some essential differences even though both programs offer an array of career benefits.

In general, the most important differences concern:

  • Time commitment: Co-ops are usually full-time work positions and may require multiple terms, whereas internships are usually part-time and shorter in duration.
  • Availability of payment: Students in a co-op are usually paid for a full-time wage during a work term. Internships, however, may be paid or unpaid depending on the type of program and the employer.
  • Flexibility: Co-op programs often require the student to commit to working for one employer for multiple work terms. Internships offer more flexibility since you can do multiple internships during your academic career and don’t have to work with the same employer, or even in the same field.
  • Length of degree: Participating in a co-op program may make it take longer to your academic degree since you are taking some semesters off to work. Internships don’t usually add to the time it takes to complete the degree since students typically take classes during their internships or complete the internship program during the summer.

If you are looking for an internship or co-op program, remember that employers sometimes use these terms interchangeably even though they are supposed to be used to describe distinct roles. Always make sure you understand the commitment you are making before you accept an internship or co-op.

4 Advantages of Internships and Co-Ops

Though internship and co-op programs aren’t identical, they both offer several of the same advantages. Here are a few of the top reasons you should consider participating in one of these programs:

1. Learn More about a Career Field

Both internship and co-op students learn more about their chosen career fields while participating in these programs. It’s one thing to think you would enjoy a career while learning about it in the classroom, but you may have a totally different experience when you get out into the real world. Internships and co-ops help you explore your career goals and objectives while helping you gain practical knowledge. Plus, depending on the program, you may even be able to earn academic credit while you gain experience.

2. Connect with Employers

Employers have an incentive to recruit from students who have completed an internship or co-op program with them since they have first-hand, relevant experience with the employer’s field. They also get new employees who are already familiar with the company who will need less time to acclimate once they’re hired to come on board.

Consequently, both internships and co-ops help students get their foot in the door with employers. These programs often lead to full-time job offers after graduation. In fact, according to a 2019 survey, around 70 % of interns and 50% of co-op participants receive a job offer from their co-op employer. Some former interns and co-op participants even receive signing bonuses after accepting a full-time role. Furthermore, because co-op students have what amounts to months of experience on the job, they also often begin at a higher starting salary and level of responsibility.

3. Professional Networking Opportunities

Even if an internship or co-op doesn’t result in a job offer, a student participating in one of these programs has the opportunity to get a head start in building a professional network that can lead to a future offer. Program employers may be able to offer letters of recommendation, introductions to others in the field, or invitations to professional organizations.

Additionally, though most interns are indeed students, recent graduates or people changing careers may also benefit from an internship experience. New graduates can sometimes use an internship as a bridge to a full-time job offer or a stepping stone to a related job. Or, for those considering a new career path, doing an internship is a wise way to try out a different role without making a long-term commitment.

4. Opportunity to Travel

Students who pursue an internship or co-op may choose to work with an employer in another state or even another country. The chance to see a new part of the world and explore what living there would be like instead of just visiting is another perk of completing one of these programs. Some employers may offer relocation assistance like a stipend for housing or travel reimbursement.

Do Internship and Co-op Students Get Paid?

For internships, it depends. Internships may be paid, unpaid, or partially paid. Sometimes, students may receive a stipend instead of wages, or the employer may offer free room and board.

Co-ops, however, are almost always paid positions. A co-op student typically works full-time and often earns the standard wage for an entry-level worker in that position. Additionally, though the income is taxable, it doesn’t count toward your Expected Family Contribution and won’t affect the amount of financial aid you receive.

Can You Earn University Credit with a Co-op or Internship?

Yes. In fact, some colleges and universities require a co-op or internship for certain degree programs or as part of a school-wide initiative.

To earn academic credit for a co-op, students typically enroll in a co-op program through their university. With an internship, however, students may find an opportunity through their school or on their own. To make sure your internship will qualify for academic credit, make sure to check with the office of your specific major or your school’s career center beforehand. The employer may need to complete paperwork on your behalf explaining your role and what your responsibilities will be. Your school may also require periodic evaluations during the internship.

Do You Pay Tuition During Your Co-op or Internship?

As a general rule, students do not pay tuition during a co-op if it is a full-time program and they are not taking any classes while they work. Usually, any merit-based scholarships are put on hold too. However, there may be administrative fees that they have to pay to participate in the program. Students do have to continue to pay for room and board if they decide to stay on campus. Because each school is different, it’s best to check with your school’s co-op office to confirm these critical financial details before making a co-op plan.

When it comes to internships, however, students usually do still take classes while participating. As discussed above, they may even be earning course credit by participating in the internship. Therefore, as a general rule, students will still pay tuition during their internship program.

How Do You Find the Right Opportunity?

If you need assistance finding an internship or co-op program, Intrax Global Internships can help. We connect qualified candidates from around the world with short and long-term internships in the U.S. and summer internships in major economic centers worldwide.

Co-ops and internships provide a great chance to see another part of the world while you gain valuable career skills. If you are from another country but seeking an internship or co-op in the United States, Intrax also provides the software and support to guide exchange visitors through the complex visa application process and generate the documents you need to apply for a visa. During your program, we provide on-going support to ensure your well-being and to help you comply with government requirements.

If you’re ready to find the right co-op or internship program, contact us to learn more about how we can help you get started.

Aug 1, 2020
Get Internships

More from 

Get Internships


View All