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Can college co-ops help reduce student debt?

Madalyn O'Dea graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2023
Madalyn O'Dea
Madalyn O'Dea graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2023.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a plan to cancel student debt, many borrowers will have to start paying back their loans later this year. On top of rising college tuition costs, that decision has left someincoming college students less optimistic about their chances of graduating with manageable debt. Still, some universities have started taking steps to help more students leave school in a better position.

The University of Cincinnati says it started its co-op program more than 100 years ago and continues to create more experienced-based learning opportunities for its students.

A co-op is like an internship with a few differences. Those differences depend on the school and program, but at UC, the co-op program allows students to work a full-time job in their area of study while earning course credit. Students can earn credit working a job one semester and take classes on campus the next semester without extending the time required to earn their degree.

UC claims in the 2022-2023 academic year, students in the college's co-op program collectively earned around $76 million with each student making somewhere around $15 an hour on average.

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One of the students, Madalyn O'Dea, who graduated from UC this past spring with a degree in communication design and a minor in marketing, says the program helped her finish school with no debt.

"I am debt-free and I am very blessed by that," she says. "I think being able to have a season where you're paid and a season where you spend is really unique. And for many students I know from my peers and friends, they are also debt-free. Everybody's situation is different but done right, you very much could be debt-free."

During her time at UC, O'Dea took part in five co-op opportunities working at different companies. One of which, Deloitte Digital in New York City, is where she will start working as a regular employee now that she has a degree.

O'Dea says it was possible for her to graduate without any loan debt because she was able to start working for companies after her first year on campus. While spending the semester working, O'Dea says she saved a good amount of her paychecks and applied for scholarships while remaining frugal and doing freelance design gigs to earn some extra money.

'Co-op 2.0'

While she was able to finish school with no debt, not everyone has had a similar experience.

Bobby Miller graduated from UC with a bachelor of science in architecture in 2009. Miller now works in advertising, but says his time working in co-ops through the university helped him realize architecture may not be the right career path for him.

He was able to make money through those jobs and says working in a field that interested him was a much better experience than trying to work a part-time service industry job like some of his classmates.

Still, Miller says the money wasn't nearly enough to cover tuition at the time and his paychecks were mostly used to pay for things like rent and food. And co-ops can sometimes come with their own expenses, like when he had to move for a job opportunity.

"In one case, I had to apply for an extra loan to afford some of the initial buffer costs of living and moving," he says. "My mom and dad had always worked, but they were just kind of blue-collar people who didn't have the extra funds to subsidize my life."

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One time, he was able to find a co-op opportunity in his hometown of Dayton, which allowed him to live with his family and save money during that period. But he still graduated with plenty of loans and debt, some of which he is still paying back.

Miller still says the program was absolutely worthwhile and a great option for students.

In many cases, co-op opportunities are offered to students studying in design or STEM fields. At UC, students studying design, engineering, business and technology are required to participate in cooperative education, but other students can take advantage of it, too.

UC's Associate Dean in the College of Cooperative Education Annie Straka says the university is pushing to create co-op tracks in other degree programs. She calls it co-op 2.0.

"It would be an option for students to integrate into their baccalaureate degree but not necessarily required," Straka said. "In arts and sciences just as an example, the student would be able to choose what that looks like in terms of how many work experiences or the pace of how it fits into their degree would be much more flexible and customized depending on the degree program."

The real value

Over at Northern Kentucky University, Manager of University Internships Julie Stockman has similar ideas. She's working to expand the co-op program's reach so more students are aware of available opportunities to work in their area of interest.

Stockman says many students at NKU are already working while they're enrolled and could find positions that would add to their educational experience through a co-op program. But these programs could use some additional support to create more pathways for students.

"Most people work and go to school at the same time," Stockman told WVXU. "What I would like to see from — honestly the federal and state levels — is some investment."

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Stockman doesn't see co-ops as a viable way for most students to completely fund their education, but does say it can be part of a plan to help reduce the overall cost. Even if a co-op or taking classes part-time extends the amount of time a student spends in school, it could still end up costing them less in the long run.

Ultimately, both co-op and internship managers at NKU and UC say the true benefits of these opportunities are students getting real-world experience in their field and making professional connections that will increase their chances of landing a higher-paying job once they receive their diploma. The money is nice, but the real value is still in the education.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.