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An internship on steroids?

The Northeastern University Cooperative Education Program began 100 years ago with four employers and eight students. Today some 2,500 students participate annually in the program. Some people might label it an "internship program on steroids." But it is more appropriately described as guided work experiences combined with a rigorous academic program.

When the program began 100 years ago, Northeastern was an open-enrollment commuter campus serving the historically low income and underrepresented populations of Boston. Today it has become a highly selective university with significant growth in new faculty. Where it was originally a commuter campus, today freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus.

The program is intentionally organized as a five-year program. When students enroll, they declare their intent to participate in the cooperative education program. It consists of two to three six-month co-op cycles within the five-year period. When the student is participating in their co-op experience at an employer, they are not charged tuition but are treated as a real employee of the company, paid by the company at the appropriate salary level for the professional position they are occupying.

The cooperative program is aligned with the student's academic focus. Each student has pre- and post-experience requirements. At the front end, they are counseled on the company in which they will be pursuing their cooperative. At the post end, they are required to prepare a reflective paper in which they describe the theoretical academic preparations that they received and align it with the actual work experience they have just completed and reflect upon what they have learned from the experience. Each cooperative becomes progressively more sophisticated as the student moves toward graduation.

The history of the program demonstrates it to be a superior educational model on work-force preparation. Students leave the program more socially aware, more mature and more capable of entering the work force as problem solvers. Companies believe that they receive quality work from the students, that the program acts as a feeder to its employee development strategy and that students who matriculate into their employee work force, better understand and appreciate the culture of the company.

At the beginning of each cooperative experience, the students are provided with learning outcomes against which they will be assessed. The company provides a specific job description that actually exists in the company. Typically, the company will create a full-time position that will be filled over the course of a calendar year by two different students who will fill that position for six months each, the first period running from January through June, the second period running from July through December. Two thirds of the students who participate are offered a job by their employer co-op.

A wonderful example was the John Hancock Insurance Co., which has participated with the Cooperative Education Program for 50 years. John Hancock typically has 75 to 100 students participating every year. The students will receive approximately one thousand hours of professional experience in each six-month cooperative education cycle.

So what takeaways are there for the Denver community? First with 35,000 undergraduate baccalaureate students attending Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver, there obviously is a wonderful opportunity to establish a cooperative education program for the Denver metropolitan area.

 Second, the business community would need to strategically commit to participation in the program by establishing full-time positions at competitive compensation levels and seeing this as is a part of their employee development strategy. Third, business would also need to drive the preparation of learning outcomes. Fourth, Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver would need to adjust their academic calendar to accommodate the six-month cooperative education cycle on behalf of business.

Finally, we would need to consider how we would start such a program in Denver at a small pilot level to ensure that we were not duplicating efforts and then grow the program over time. But imagine the possibility of having 2,500 students or more participating in this kind of experiential learning with the opportunity for the majority of those students to become gainfully employed in business, right here in Denver. What an amazing way to begin to address the Colorado Paradox.
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Stephen Jordan

Stephen Jordan is president of Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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