It's spring, and a fresh crop of graduating high school students across the country are eagerly awaiting admissions letters so they can decide where they'll spend the next four years.
If you're one of those students, there's one more thing you need to consider: Whether or not your prospective school offers a co-op program. Because those that don't are lying to you about the value of your education and hoping you won't find out until you've spent tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
Co-op programs have been around for decades and I'm appalled that they are not mandatory or at least offered in more universities. These programs, in which students alternate between full-time coursework and real-world employment, enable students to evaluate the market demand for their degree and skills while they still have time to course-correct.
When learning skills that are in-demand, students have a wide selection of co-op jobs, which provide meaningful experience and competitive compensation. If you're earning a degree in a field with less demand, the options aren't as compelling. But isn't it better to learn this harsh fact while there's still time to transfer, take electives or otherwise build the necessary skills for employment upon graduation?
Students enrolled in co-op programs typically work in a range of different co-op jobs throughout their university career, accumulating meaningful experience and real-world skills before they officially enter the work force. These students graduate with a significant head-start over their peers – an advantage which will remain with them throughout their careers.
I entered the University of Waterloo 10 years ago with the dream of designing and building cars. Within weeks of starting school, I was submitting résumés and interviewing for my first co-op placement and was lucky enough to land one at General Motors. While I loved my job (I got to play with huge robots – what 18 year-old wouldn't?), I looked at my bosses and their bosses and quickly realized that I didn't want the life of a middle manager at a truck plant.
After a series of career pivots and course selections based on what I was learning on the job, I graduated with a solid résumé, no debt, reasonable savings and a handful of job offers. So did almost everyone else in my graduating class. Contrast that to the situation of most graduates: debt-laden, unemployed and unprepared for the real-world. It's outrageous that someone can potentially spend over $100,000 on an education, then be unable to find a meaningful job and move back into their parents' house. I would feel lied to, and many recent graduates do.
Beyond the compensation, work experience and "crystal ball" benefits of seeing into the future of your potential career, co-op programs also teach students about professionalism, develop interviewing and résumé-writing skills.
Finally, they break the monotony of classes for students with decreasing attention spans and can provide some unique travel opportunities. I spent a summer working for a small engineering firm in Germany, and many of my classmates had similar international work experience.
Most co-op programs today are focused on engineering and business programs, which already have practical-focused curricula. Schools should make an effort to establish co-op programs in more theoretical arts and science programs. We need graduates with these theoretical skills, but it's important for students to experience the career options and demand for their skills while they're still in school. By ignoring these programs, universities are effectively telling these students that they're on their own to find a career path once they receive their degrees.
If university degrees came with a 90-day refund policy, I think we'd see a lot of unemployed students waiting in the returns line. Co-op programs are as close to a "try before you buy" deal as we'll see in higher education anytime soon.
Andrew D'Souza is chief operating officer of Top Hat, an active learning program that aims to improve student engagement using mobile technology and interactive simulations.