Peer Review

Cooperative Education at the University of Cincinnati: A Strategic Asset in Evolution

Cooperative Education (co-op) was developed at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in 1906 by Herman Schneider, a young, dynamic dean. Co-op is today defined as an educational methodology in which periods of classroom instruction alternate with periods of paid discipline-related work experience (Cates and Cedercreutz 2008). Co-op students typically participate in a school-work rotation that may span over as many as three academic years throughout their undergraduate education. While Schneider had proposed this concept a few years earlier as a professor at Lehigh University, his ideas did not resonate with the institution. However, in Cincinnati, he found the ground to be fertile, and the building blocks for the program were already in place. The city of Cincinnati, with its largely German population, had a large number of successful machine tool companies that were gearing up their production to meet the demand of the emerging automotive industry. The Midwest was headed for an era of historic growth, creating high demand for qualified engineers at an accelerated rate. The Cooperative Method of Education was Herman Schneider’s response to the escalating demand. Schneider capitalized on the presence of a strong manufacturing industry, a well-established engineering school, and the intrinsic appreciation the German culture held for apprenticeships. According to campus tradition, the skeptical University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees gave Schneider the right to “try this cooperative idea of education for one year only, for the failure of which they would not be held responsible.”

The rest is history. Schneider started with twenty-seven students. The next year, more than eight hundred students applied to participate in the program. The “Cincinnati Plan,” as the program was initially coined, soon took off as a transferrable concept. In 1909, Northeastern University announced its co-op program. This was followed by the University of Pittsburgh in 1910, the University of Detroit in 1911, and Georgia Institute of Technology and Rochester Institute of Technology in 1912. Drexel University would join ranks in 1919. Within twenty years, co-op programs had been adopted by more than a dozen institutions, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For many of these institutions, cooperative education has provided a sustainable competitive advantage that is still a vital part of their academic strategy today. From Cincinnati, co-op has grown to be adopted by as many as nine hundred universities worldwide. In September 2005 (University of Cincinnati 2005), the UC Board of Trustees tongue in cheek issued a proclamation that contained the following statement: “We, the Board of Trustees of the University of Cincinnati, hereby declare the trial period of one hundred years of cooperative education officially ended, for the success of which we will assume full responsibility.” In September 2010, UC President Gregory H. Williams emphasized in his investiture speech the generation of new models of co-op, internships, and service learning as a top UC priority (Williams 2010).

Like all innovators, Herman Schneider was a product of his time. He had a passion for linking theory and practice together in a meaningful way. He could move from manufacturing to Shakespeare whenever he recognized that his students needed a wider spectrum of intellectual stimulus. Schneider’s thinking had many parallels with the thoughts of John Dewey. In his “learning by doing” philosophy, Dewey, in essence, brought practice into the classroom. Schneider’s approach to problem solving was to bring the students out to work, to make them contributing citizens in the real world. Philosophically, these men had a lot in common. But Dewey was a prolific writer, whereas Schneider was a “doer” who wanted to maximize his effect on students’ lives and the industrial world around him.

Over the years, co-op has seen a number of shapes and forms at the University of Cincinnati. During the initial years, co-op was equivalent to a week-by-week alternation of school and work. As the university grew, and the commutes became longer, the work terms followed suit. After the Second World War, the university followed a seven-week, split semester co-op calendar. In 2012, the university is moving from a quarter to a semester calendar, taking the work terms from thirteen to seventeen weeks. The increase in the length of the work term supports increased participation in out-of-state and overseas co-ops.

Secrets of Success

The core secret of success for co-op at the University of Cincinnati is explicitly value based. Co-op gave the university a competitive advantage, positive identity, and an enhanced goodwill within the community. Through its initial success, co-op developed to become an intrinsic part of the culture of the institution. Experiential learning forms a core academic value, and the learning benefits offered by co-op are well understood on every level.

In order to become a high-volume program, co-op had to be formalized and regimented. The first supporting operational issue was to develop a calendar that guaranteed full industry coverage twelve months of the year, thus allowing employers to develop their operations to rely upon co-op. Participating companies were able to create meaningful jobs that were conducive to developing the professional skills of the students.

The second key attribute was to require that all co-ops be paid. The obvious financial benefit of this arrangement was that it helped students offset their tuition bills and living expenses. Still, the deeper pedagogical rationale was more significant. Co-op was designed to mimic real-world conditions in which students were also employees. The saying, “The key to any employment contract is an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work,” soon evolved into a cornerstone of the program. This motto, which has kept companies from hiring beyond their needs, also ensured that students in co-ops always had meaningful work. It was evident that getting paid, being involved, and learning the profession were all linked to one another.

The third key attribute was assessment. The fact that students were assessed by supervisors and faculty, and that they had the opportunity to confidentially assess the employer, made it possible to maximize student engagement and learning.

The above attributes have stood the test of time, and still today form the foundation for cooperative education at the University of Cincinnati.

Learning and Assessment

Learning and assessment are an obvious part of cooperative education. It is not difficult to convince anyone that eighteen months of a professionally related work experience prepares a student for a smoother transition to a career. It is also easy to recognize that when theory and practice are interlaced within the curriculum, the two approaches to problem solving support one another. A co-op curriculum is simply easier to digest than one that does not involve practice. Co-op takes students further faster. This fact is well understood by the 1,500 employers who participate in the UC co-op program annually. A few of these employers have been with the university since 1906, but a dynamic economy brings approximately 20 percent new employers to campus each year. Faculty recruited to the university from other prestigious engineering schools are often surprised that UC seniors outperform the graduate students enrolled at their previous universities.

One aspect of a cooperative education program that is a bit more concealed is the effect co-op has on the faculty body as a whole. One can say, a little bit tongue in cheek, that faculty members in a UC mandatory co-op program have not been able to fool the students since 1906. As early as 1908, it was noted in the minutes of the Cincinnati Metal Trades Association that “the professors now face a sort of reversed quiz in which the students put the professors on the rack and many find this very uncomfortable.” Faculty have, over the years, learned to draw from the fact that students are exposed to the latest industrial trends, and bring the collective knowledge of the group into the classroom. Over a hundred years, these dynamics have developed into a pedagogical culture that has a strong blend of theory and practice.

In mandatory co-op programs, the work experience boosts the academic evolution of the entire class. When co-op is optional, the academically stronger students typically gravitate toward co-op. This becomes a challenge to faculty as heterogeneous groups tend to be more difficult to address. Co-op is most effective when all students in a cohort are involved equally in the alternation of school and work. At the University of Cincinnati, this is the case for the twenty-three majors offered by the Colleges of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) and the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP). Co-op has, as an example, contributed to the stellar rankings of several DAAP programs. The dean of DAAP, Robert Probst, proudly emphasizes the link between a roster of strong co-op employers and the fact that the baccalaureate program in interior design has been ranked number one by Design Intelligence eleven out of the past twelve years.

In addition to rankings, the measurement of learning outcomes has become a staple in American higher education over the past two decades. ABET was one of the first accreditation bodies to develop fully outcomes-based assessment criteria. Most regional accreditation bodies soon followed suit. This evolution presented a golden opportunity for cooperative education. Could the efficacy of a specific curriculum be measured in the context of work, and the results fed back to the classroom for continuous improvement purposes? Encouraged by initial findings at Georgia Institute of Technology (Hoey, Marr, and Gardener 2002) and Iowa State (Hanneman et al. 2002), the authors embarked on a four-year research project to explore this relationship. Financed by the Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) this $1 million project (federal funding: $555,000), Developing a Corporate Feedback System for Curricular Reform, yielded very positive results. The project involved twenty faculty members from the Engineering and Applied Science, DAAP, Business, and Education colleges, resulting in a feedback system that is now a part of the standard operating procedure of the university. The methodology documents the evolution of student skills throughout the curriculum by contrasting up to six chronological performance assessments completed by supervisors at the end of each co-op work term.

This methodology, adopted first by UC, brings with it a lot of advantages. Primarily, faculties now have access to contextual and blind student work performance data. The data show which abilities various student cohorts exhibit uniformly, and in which cases improvement is required. The methodology has intensified the dialogue between employers and faculty, and has revealed a variety of educational measures that can be used to affect student work performance outcomes. The results are robust, as they are based on 200,000 data points generated by 2,500 supervisors on an annual basis. UC today has the unique opportunity to catch a deficiency in curriculum and rectify it before a specific cohort graduates. The methodology continues to be advanced by the Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation (CERI), led by author Cheryl Cates. The center’s objective is to develop several software products that will make the methodology available for a wide array of universities engaged in various forms of experiential learning.

Evolution in Programmatic Offerings

The past years have seen an evolution in a number of co-op offerings to serve a variety of constituencies. The International Co-op Program (ICP) offered at the University of Cincinnati prepares students for a co-op experience in Japan or Germany through 300 hours of language and cultural instruction. The programs are very effective in that students are required to develop conversational skills in German/Japanese through intensive language training before their overseas work assignment.

The Research Co-op Program, pioneered by Dean Montemagno at the College of Engineering and Applied Science, allows students to get exposure to research throughout their undergraduate years. The program builds on a solid tradition of research placements developed at the university over a century. During the past nine years, the college has also developed several Accelerated Engineering Degree (ACCEND) programs that allow students to complete five quarters of co-op while earning a combined BS/MS degree in just five years. Cross-college ACCEND programs that combine a BS and an MBA degree from the College of Business are also getting increasingly popular.

Another recent development is an Experiential Explorations Program that allows students to substitute one co-op quarter with a non-paid experience such as volunteer work for not-for-profit organizations, travel and study abroad programs, and unpaid academic research opportunities. Given the increasing social consciousness of today’s students, this option allows them not only to meet their career-related aspirations through co-op, but also to fulfill their need to contribute through service.

As large scale co-op is only offered in three of UC’s twelve colleges, the Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation is developing an academic internship program providing less time-intensive experiential learning opportunities to students campuswide. The academic internship program is, however, based upon very similar pedagogic principles to that of cooperative education. The program is supported by the fact that 74 percent of students admitted to UC name co-op and internships as a very important factor influencing their choice to attend the university.

Effects beyond the Curriculum

Popular belief holds that co-op links theory and practice by reinforcing things learned in the classroom within the context of work. A value analysis pursued by the UC Division of Professional Practice in 2004, however, shows that the effects of co-op go far beyond the scope defined by the curriculum. Co-op exposes students to life situations that are much more complex than could ever be covered in a classroom. Encouraged by these findings, Division of Professional Practice staff developed an online competition called 100 Cool Co-ops. The web-based competition allowed students to upload anecdotes from their co-op experiences. These submissions were later subject to a popular online vote. The initial competition yielded more than 250 submissions, and attracted in excess of 65,000 online votes. As a result, UC now has a good grasp of student values as related to co-op.

Community Impact

Cooperative education integrates campus life with the business and civic community in a very effective way. While co-op has been a signature characteristic of the University of Cincinnati since 1906, Greater Cincinnati has, over the same period, grown to become one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the Midwest, outpacing Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Columbus in economic diversity according to informal research by UC’s Director of the Economics Center for Education and Research, George Vredeveld (Vredeveld, pers. com.).

While the co-op program enhances the attraction of Greater Cincinnati as a business location, the effect of the program on the competitiveness of the institution should not be underestimated. UC students, over their 5,200 annual co-op terms, earn an aggregate of $37 million, which significantly enhances the competitiveness of the institution. In fact, should UC desire to replace co-op earnings with scholarships, the university would need an additional one billion dollar endowment to allow a similar level of support.

Over the past eight years, co-op at UC has grown from 4,200 to 5,200 placements, keeping pace with enrollment numbers that have grown from 32,000 to 40,000 students. In 2010, the University of Cincinnati uniquely combines a high research profile (externally funded research: $377.9 million) with high-volume participation in experiential learning.

State Level Impact

The UC success in cooperative education has not gone unnoticed on a state level. In the strategic plan launched in 2007, the University System of Ohio (USO) was charged with more than doubling co-op placements to 100,000 by 2017. To support this goal, the state launched the Ohio Cooperative Education and Internship Program (OCIP) in 2009, which allocated $50 million per year over five years toward the development of statewide offerings. The grant drew a number of proposals from all corners of the state. The University of Cincinnati, together with partner institutions, participated with a number of major specific proposals, as well as a proposal to build an educational system to promote the statewide implementation of co-op programs. In addition, UC proposed the establishment of an innovation corridor with the objective of attracting more than of one billion dollars of industrial investment to the southwest corner of Ohio by 2025, using the infrastructure of cooperative education as a significant competitive advantage.

The OCIP program was cancelled due to budget cuts following the recession, but a new approach to reinstate the funding through casino licensing fees was approved by the legislature in 2010, with a goal of initiating requests for proposals in 2011.

Looking Ahead

In 2010, the University of Cincinnati is going through a major pedagogic restructuring as a result of the semester conversion that will go into effect in the summer of 2012. Under semesters, co-op will in effect follow a trimester structure. The beauty of this system is that the placement cycle will allow longer industrial placements, as well as the possibility for each student to see all seasons, both on campus as well as at work.

At the same time, the institutional strategic planning process is moving rapidly ahead. The arrival of President Gregory H. Williams has brought an explicitly results-oriented approach to the strategic planning. The arrival of Provost Santa J. Ono in September 2010 has already initiated a thorough academic dialogue on UC’s academic goals and ambitions. Simultaneously, the Council of Deans is proposing to incorporate “innovations in multidisciplinary collaborative education and research that leverage UC’s relationships with the business, civic, and professional communities found in our urban environment” into the university strategic plan. There is no question that the vibrant discussion brought about by these initiatives will propel UC’s cooperative education program and its new academic internship program to a new level of excellence.



Cates, Cheryl, and Kettil Cedercreutz. 2008. “Getting Started.” In Leveraging Cooperative Education to Guide Curricular Innovation: The Development of a Corporate Feedback System for Continuous Improvement, edited by Cheryl Cates and Kettil Cedercreutz, 21–33. Cincinnati, OH: The Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation.

Hanneman, Larry. F., Steven K. Mickelson, Loni. K. Pringnitz, and Michael Lehman. 2002. “Constituent-Created, Competency-Based ABET-Aligned Assessment Tools for the Engineering Experiential Education Workplace.” In Proceedings for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology ABET Annual Meeting, 2nd National Conference on Outcomes Assessment for Program Improvement. Baltimore, MD: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

Hoey, J. Joseph, Jack Marr, and Denise C. Gardener. 2002. “Multiple Vantage Points for Employment-Related Feedback: Some Vantage Points.” In Proceedings for Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology ABET Annual Meeting, 2nd National Conference on Outcomes Assessment for Program Improvement, Baltimore, MD: Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees. 2005. Minutes of the Board of Trustees Meeting, September 27. .

Williams, Gregory H. 2010. Investiture speech, September 19.

Kettil Cedercreutz is a professor, associate provost, and director of the Division of Professional Practice; Cheryl Cates is a professor and director of the Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation both of the University of Cincinnati.

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