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Co-op Vs. Internship: What’s the Difference?

November 18, 2016 7:22 am Published by Leave your thoughts


 You say “tuh-mey-toh” and I say “toh-mah-toh”.   Co-op and intern can be like that…..with the terms often being used interchangeably.

However, while Cooperative Education is implemented differently from institution to institution, there are certain characteristics that remain relatively constant from one program to the next.

Cooperative Education is an academic program that is meant to complement the student’s education through hands-on application in their field of study.  It is a long-term plan that can start as early as their freshman year, depending on the university, and can last the duration of the student’s academic career.

The primary difference between a co-op and an internship is the duration of the experience and often the level of planning that is required. Co-op involves multi-term work assignments with increased tasks and responsibilities as the student progresses through classes, obtaining in-depth work experience.  Many universities require the student to remain with the same employer for the duration of their co-op position.

Various forms of co-op include the alternating model (students alternating between semesters of full-time work and full-time school) and the parallel model which allows students to work part-time (between 15-25 hours per week) while attending classes. Both models provide for multiple sessions or rotations, as well as, promoting increasing levels of responsibility.

Internships are often project-based and last one semester or a short term. Internships commonly occur in the summer and will not interfere with college classes, but students receive less training and experience as a result. Internships do not have to be limited to summer as many CPA firms do offer spring accounting internships during tax season.

While they are quite different from one another, both co-op and intern opportunities move the students beyond theory to the realm of “learning by doing”, providing them a first-hand experience of applying classroom theory to real-world experience and creating realistic career expectations.

Author: Debra Barrick, Director, Office of Academic Internships, Cooperative Education and Service Learning, Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne

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