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Cooperative education: a natural synergy between business and academia.
Cooperative education programs offer numerous benefits to the business organizations, educational institutions and students involved. For the student participants, these programs offer greater opportunities to assess career possibilities, to examine a possible fit with a particular company and to develop interpersonal skills. For the participating colleges and universities, cooperative education provides a new forum for student and curriculum assessment, a new channel for the application of management theory and a new means to recruit qualified students. As for the business community, partnership with academic institutions open up new opportunities to build public relations and brand loyalty, to keep updated in the field and to obtain seasonal, temporary workers. The processes involved in developing effective cooperative education programs are discussed.

Business and education (Management)
Internship programs (Management)
Thiel, Glenn R.
Hartley, Nell T.
Pub Date:
Name: SAM Advanced Management Journal Publisher: Society for the Advancement of Management Audience: Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, general Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1997 Society for the Advancement of Management ISSN: 0036-0805
Date: Summer, 1997 Source Volume: v62 Source Issue: n3
Accession Number:
Full Text:
"Professor, do you have any advice for my coop interview at the hospital?" said the student preparing to leave for an interview that he hoped would be the start of a career in purchasing. "Yes," the professor replied. "Lose that earring. This hospital is very conservative and once they see that earring, your career as a purchasing intern will be over before it starts." The student did manage to lose the earring that day, had his interview, was accepted by the hospital, and experienced a successful cooperative education at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The student gained professional experience and credit in his major, the hospital gained an excellent intern, and the college received tuition money and favorable image enhancement by the quality work of the intern. Synergy!

The idea of colleges and businesses coming together through cooperative education programs is neither new nor limited to any one region of the country. Cooperative education programs have been recorded as early as the 1906 program at the University of Cincinnati. These internships developed from the idea of cooperative education programs whose primary function was to enable students in professional programs to finance their education. Their growth benefited from models used in the field of education where practice teaching is a requirement for certification. Multiple studies point out that internships are possible in almost any discipline.(1) While internship programs are available on over 1,000 college and university campuses, we believe that these programs have not begun to reach their full potential in terms of serving students and the private and public sectors. An informal survey of employers, academicians and students identified the following barriers to success:

1. Internships are electives in most business programs.(2)

2. Interns perceive that they have paid for the privilege of doing "gopher," dead-end work.

3. Faculty do not consider internships part of the educational program.

4. Employers do not view internships as mentoring opportunities.

5. There can be unequal commitments and expectations among the various parties involved.

Through quality initiatives and continuous improvement and refinement, the management faculty at Robert Morris College have identified several strategies for removing some of these barriers and are seeking to implement these strategies.

In our view it is necessary to constructively question the current value of cooperative education programs and to expand the dialogue concerning strategies necessary to reengineer them - should we decide to keep them. We prepared ourselves to engage in discontinuous thinking. One of the discarded assumptions was that employers who participate in cooperative education are reliable and adequate role models. While most employers with whom we have been jointly involved are dedicated to providing a motivating and challenging experience for an intern, the college must be prepared to address that occasional employer who is not quite so dedicated. Several years ago a new cooperative education student working as an assistant manager at scuba gear store had to be removed from the co-op and reassigned after only a few weeks on the job. It seems that during the first several weeks, the student had to deal with repeated instructions by supervisors to ignore OSHA safety regulations regarding the filling of customer scuba tanks. The overfill instructions given to the student by his managers jeopardized the safety of customers. In another case, it became necessary to reassign an intern after only one week on the job because the intern had observed both his manager and assistant manager return to the store intoxicated.

We have also had to be prepared to abandon protective thinking and to hear negative reports about our interns. A health club manager terminated an intern because he overheard the intern tell a customer that his internship "sucked." Another intern was so disruptive in undermining her supervisors that after only three weeks on the job she was dismissed. Despite several warnings, a third intern continued to schedule doctor and dentist appointments during her working hours. As a result, it became necessary to terminate her. Occasional negative reactions by employers have led to efforts on our part to advise students of behaviors that are "inappropriate."

We have, however, held our basic premise that cooperative education is needed to provide academic and business services and growth opportunities for college students. We concur with the challenges offered in the "Workforce 2000" literature. We believe that we are developing and continually improving a program that responds to the shift in employment paradigms. The previous paradigms produced:

* expectations of lifelong employment in one company,

* narrow and rigidly defined jobs, and

* rigid demarcation between functions.(3)

In contrast, we see cooperative education internships as part of the new paradigm of employees seeking multiple experiences and exposures.

Many institutions find cooperative education internships to be exceedingly valuable to the students who participate. This is true for most of the students who come through management internships at Robert Morris. Nguyen sums up the benefits to students in this strong statement: ". . . whether it offers total immersion, an opportunity to get your feet wet or just dirty your hands . . . affords a taste of reality you could never find on a college campus."

Identified benefits to student participants include:

1. Greater meaning attached to the student's academic program.

2. Increased opportunities to examine career possibilities.

3. An opportunity to explore a possible fit with a particular company prior to going through the hiring process.

4. An opportunity for training under both academic and practitioner supervision.

5. Increased maturity and confidence through handling added responsibilities.

6. An opportunity to develop interpersonal skills through working with a group less homogenous than collegiate peers.

7. An opportunity to earn money while learning (in paid internships).

Documented benefits to the business community include:

1. The opportunity to preview the skills and evaluate the potential fit of an employee prior to the hiring process.

2. "Cross fertilization of ideas"(5) among intern, faculty sponsors, and business supervisors.

3. The opportunity to establish contact with local collegiate business programs and faculty.

4. An opportunity to build public relations and/or brand loyalty.

5. An avenue through which to be socially responsive to the community.

6. A vehicle for staying current in the field (especially when the internship faculty coordinator is available for on-site visits).

7. A means of getting seasonal, temporary assistance.

Observed benefits to the academic institutions include:

1. A logical channel for application of management theory (an important criteria in collegiate evaluation).

2. An additional forum for student and curriculum assessment.

3. A source of practitioner input into curriculum development.

4. A source of employment opportunities for college students.

5. Education that reduces classroom crowding when space is at a premium.

6. Public relations and advertising for the college, which can lead to increased corporate donations.

7. A recruitment tool for attracting qualified nontraditional students.

Reengineering cooperative education required that we start from scratch. We examined whether participation in the program justified the time and energy demanded of faculty to develop sites, recruit students, monitor the internships, and assess results. We identified, reviewed, and evaluated each of the processes needed to establish and maintain a quality cooperative education program. The processes include:

* Recruitment of students

* Academic preparation and application to cooperative education

* Identification of sites

* Matching student applicants to the co-op sites

* Matching the co-op experience with openings on the academic checksheet

* Orientation of the interns

* Intern academic assignments and appraisal process

* Program results

Recruitment of Students

To recruit new management interns, the management faculty utilizes publicity and promotional materials provided by the cooperative education department. The faculty use classroom orientations, handouts by the department cooperative education coordinator, and referrals by present interns.

The coordinator of the intern program prepares student intern testimonials from recent coop internships, identifying the employer and containing favorable statements from each student intern. The testimonial sheets are then distributed in junior and senior management classes. Faculty who look favorably on the program will often endorse it in their individual courses. At the start of each semester, the department coordinator allocates class time and S.A.M. campus chapter meetings for the purpose of discussing and promoting the program.

Previous interns will recommend an internship experience to a friend. By obtaining updated position descriptions from the faculty coordinator, the friend can review the descriptions and then decide whether or not to apply.

Academic Preparation and Application to Cooperative Education

In order to be accepted into the program, the student must maintain a quality point average of 2.0 of 4.0, have no failing or incomplete grades, have no grade lower than a C in the major, and have at least three credits of open electives available for the co-op experience. An applicant must have earned a minimum of 60 credits prior to the start of the semester in which the co-op is desired.

If eligible, the next step is for the student to attend a general information session, which is held at the beginning of each term. During this session, the student is provided with complete instructions and an application packet. The student must complete the application, provide a current resume, and be recommended by a sponsoring faculty member. The completed packet is then forwarded to the head of the management department for final approval. Once approved, an individual student's materials are forwarded to employers who regularly utilize Robert Morris's co-operative education services. Placement of the student is done through competitive interviews.

Identification of Sites

Rather than leaving the development of co-op sites to Career Services, we proactively use all of our department faculty networks to identify possible sites. Leads come through part-time faculty, faculty corporate consulting and speaking activities, and social contacts. We stress that this is a synergistic opportunity.

Cooperative education sites are also identified by converting existing positions at other sites previously not used by department promotional efforts on Career Day, by continued use of existing sites, and by developing new sites. But developing new sites requires caution. The authors are reminded of a student who succeeded in getting a Dairy Queen site approved for co-op. The Dairy Queen owner agreed to provide experience in supervision, training, scheduling, and the like. When the faculty coordinator went to conduct the on-site evaluation, he was shocked to learn that the intern was reporting to the owner, his mother. Needless to say, when it came to evaluating the intern, the "owner" was somewhat biased.

Matching Student Applicants to Co-op Sites

The employer is the best judge of the requirements of the position and how well a student's specifications match. The cooperative education department will distribute student resumes to regular co-op employers and newly developed sites several months in advance of the next term. The employer will review the resumes and select students for interviews. Students will schedule the interviews, participate in them, and, if nothing else, gain practical experience from the interview procedure.

Matching the Co-op Experience with Openings on the Academic Checksheet

Under most circumstances, a management intern will have a number of credits of open electives available on his or her checksheet. This means that the student can enroll in several courses of his choice. Some of these open electives can be allocated to cooperative education. The most commonly chosen co-op consists of six credits, or about 240 hours of work per 15-week semester. The specific intern days and working hours are mutually agreed on by the employer and the student.

Orientation of Interns by Faculty Coordinator

Upon accepting a co-op position, a student receives generalized guidelines concerning student co-op responsibilities. The student intern is expected to contact the faculty coordinator and schedule an orientation session in which all the co-op academic assignments and workplace expectations are discussed. The seminar allows a one-on-one exchange between the intern and faculty coordinator. The intern is given a schedule of assignments, values and due dates of the assignments, and procedures for contacting the coordinator. Samples of weekly reports and instructions on completing a journal article analysis are distributed and discussed. The student is given an opportunity to examine the faculty coordinator evaluation materials so that the final evaluation and on-site visit are not a surprise.

Intern Academic Assignments and the Appraisal Process

* Evaluation of Weekly Reports

Each intern must submit a report detailing the previous week's activities. These reports are valued at 40% of the faculty coordinator's grade. The reports inform the faculty coordinator that the work being performed is directly related to the major and is work for which academic credit can be granted. Preparing these reports forces the student to think about his workweek, evaluate important work activities, and place his thoughts in a formal report. Major writing difficulties and errors can be pointed out to the intern so that these can be avoided in future reports.

* Journal Article Reports

During a 15-week term, an intern is required to research and prepare written reports on three journal articles. The intern is instructed to use the library to select an article from a professional journal. These three reports compose an additional 45% of the coordinator's academic grade.

* The Position Description

The final academic assignment for credit is the preparation of a position description, valued at 15% of the final academic portion of the grade. This task is deferred until the last week of the cooperative experience, so that the intern has been at work for 14 weeks before the description is written. This is a valuable assignment because it forces the student to re-identify the most important responsibilities of the internship experience and structure them into a position description. A copy of the position description can be retained by the faculty coordinator and shown to prospective student applicants. An additional benefit of a position description is that it can be provided to a new cooperative education employer as a model for that employer's position description.

* Academic Appraisal Process

The weekly reports, the journal article reports, and the position description assignments allow the faculty coordinator to retain control over the academic portion of the cooperative experience. Sixty percent of the intern's final grade is based upon the completion of academic requirements. Interns ultimately realize that while they may be working away from the institution, they are still undergoing an academic experience.

* The On-Site Evaluation Visit

During the final week of a student cooperative experience, the faculty coordinator conducts an on-site employer evaluation of student performance. This part of the process further confirms the mentoring relationship that has been established between faculty coordinator and the intern. Various employer and intern forms are used to provide a collective analysis of the experience. The employer is asked to evaluate the quality and quantity of the intern's work, the intern's ability to work with others, and supervisory ability. A simple evaluation scale is used. The employer's evaluation of the intern is valued at 40% of the final grade. By tallying the employer's responses, it is now possible to determine the student's final internship grade by averaging the cooperative education coordinator's grade with the employer's grade. The evaluation form also contains a developmental section in which both intern and employer are asked to relate the intern's strengths and areas needing improvement. This allows the intern to recognize areas he or she can promote in an employment interview as well as those that need some work.

Program Results

Management intern partnerships at Robert Morris consist of purchasing internships at hospitals, human resource internships at personnel recruitment firms and hotels, administration internships with the Small Business Administration, supervision internships with various retail chains, and internships with local government. According to Fitt and Heverly (1992), the added benefits of these internships appear in the form of equipment donations, scholarships, and even grant money.(6)

Since 1993, Robert Morris Career Services has assumed the responsibility for monitoring the student application procedures to co-op, the sending of resumes to sites, and the records maintenance function. The effective partnership between Career Services and the management department has resulted in approximately 125 interns being placed from the spring of 1993 to the fall of 1996. This amazing success is directly attributable to our willingness to step back and reengineer the process. The process results have proven to be worth the time, effort, attention, and resources.

Note: A successful cooperative education program requires the use of various forms. Space does not permit the inclusion of these forms here, but samples can be obtained by writing to the authors at Robert Morris College, 600 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA, 15219.


1. Examples: Burns 1979; Feringer 1984; Henry 1988; Raffield 1985; Tas 1990; Veitz 1983

2. The exceptions here are in the service programs, hospitality and tourism.

3. Taken in part from David Jamieson and Julie O'Mara. Managing Workplace 2000. (San Francisco, Josey Bass) 1991, p. 36.

4. K. Nguyen as quoted in "Piaget and the University Internship Experience" by Kathleen Harcharik. Journal of Cooperative Education, volume XXIX, No. 1, 1993, p. 24.

5. David X. Fitt. Involving the Private Sector with Higher Education. Journal of Cooperative Education, Volume XXVII. No. 3, 1992, p. 66.

6. Ibid., p. 67.


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Glenn Thiel, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, has been a Cooperative Education Management Intern Coordinator since 1986 and has also been active in SAM activities. Dr. Hartley is a recognized expert in organizational behavior and time management; she also focuses on leadership and assertiveness issues and has developed programs for students, corporations, and academic institutions to assist people in working productively with others.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.