Since Portland State President Rahmat Shoureshi began his relationship with the university as a candidate in winter 2017, he has promoted the idea of a cooperative education system that would allow students to gain practical work experience as part of their degree path.
Since then, as PSU students face another tuition increase, Shoureshi has pushed the co-op system as a means of inviting business investment into the university to lessen the financial burden on students.
Shoureshi said he anticipates starting the program in the next year or two, beginning with the business school and eventually expanding to every other major on campus. As the beginning draws near, however, some students have doubts about what it will mean for PSU’s culture, how much students will end up having a say in their education, and whether co-ops will only benefit a privileged sector of PSU’s student population that doesn’t have to work while going to school.
What is a co-op?
“Co-op is when you combine the work of the student in the classroom with work in real life,” explained Dr. Behrooz Satvat, associate teaching professor in chemical engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. and faculty member of Northeastern’s 109-year-old co-op program, in an information session he led at PSU on Friday, May 18.
Satvat said Northeastern students can work for one of over 2500 local and international businesses, hospitals and non-profits for one, two or three six-month long stints. The experience, according to Northeastern’s website, “remains a powerful learning model that integrates classroom learning with real-world experiences.”
In some cases, Northeastern’s co-op program extends a four-year degree to five years. PSU could end up mimicking this system, alternating students in their last two years at PSU between terms working and terms going to school. However, Shoureshi suggested in a March 16 press conference he would like to see students earning money in a part time co-op while still attending school.
Satvat added that while enrolled in the program, PSU students could receive a no-cost credit, meaning they would be still officially enrolled at PSU and could avoid triggering repayment of their student loans. Additionally, students would still be able to access campus resources and PSU’s health insurance plan.
The pay would also count as work-study, Satvat said, so it would not be taxable at the end of the year and wouldn’t count against the amount of financial aid a student receives. Additionally, if PSU follows in Northeastern’s steps, students would make more than minimum wage. At Northeastern, students make between $14–17 an hour.
Satvat said PSU’s program wouldn’t be rushed or copied from Northeastern and student and faculty member input will be key in its creation.
Who does a co-op benefit?
In the March press conference, Shoureshi said the co-op program would most likely begin with business students and eventually expand to other programs on campus.
However, according to Associate Vice President for Strategic Partnerships Erin Flynn, who helped establish PSU’s co-op task force in February 2018, three undergraduate student representatives majoring in business, engineering and graphic design meet with the committee every two weeks to work on developing PSU’s plan.
“We will be launching the co-op program in multiple schools and majors beginning next year,” Flynn wrote in an email. “Initially we plan to start the program involving the following majors: accounting and marketing (business); math and statistics; graphic design [and] geographical information systems (GIS).”
Shoureshi has marketed the program as a way for students to earn a decent wage while learning job skills applicable to their major. At a presentation to the Westside Economic Alliance forum in Tigard, Ore. in February, Shoureshi said, “It provides [students] the financial ability to go through school. Instead of working three jobs—and we have so many students in that category, but in jobs that have nothing to do with what they are studying or the future they have—this way we will be able to put them in the right experiential learning.”
However, Flynn stated both faculty and staff have expressed concerns that a co-op program at PSU would actually “add to inequities among students.”
However, both faculty and staff have expressed concerns that a co-op program at PSU would actually “add to inequities among students.”
“Everyone sees the benefit of students obtaining paid, work experience related to their chosen major prior to graduation,” Flynn wrote.
However, one main concern Flynn said students and staff have voiced is “many PSU students must work part or full-time in order to put themselves through school. If co-op jobs are not reliable [or] don’t pay as much as jobs students already have they will not be able to participate in the program.”
The other main concern, Flynn added, is “many PSU students are enrolled in majors that may not easily lend themselves to paid co-ops—e.g. social work, urban planning, history, sociology etc.”
At Northeastern, a significant number of co-op programs are indeed unpaid.
According to Nathan Hostert, 2018-2019 Northeastern student body president, some co-op internships, especially in medicine, humanities and social sciences, do not pay students. While some internships take Northeastern students across the world, others place students in nonprofit jobs that cannot afford to pay.
An audience member asked Satvat exactly how many PSU internships would be unpaid. Satvat answered that if PSU follows the same trend as Northeastern, 25 percent of co-op internships would not pay, most of which would be for students majoring in liberal arts degrees.
Some worry whether corporate influence will supersede student benefit
With that in mind, newly-elected Associated Students of PSU senator Camilo Assad said they worry PSU’s co-op program will change the university’s fundamental mission of “let knowledge serve the city.”
“We keep moving away from college being an opportunity to be better informed citizens and contribute to our communities, which is something PSU really puts out as a big part of [its mission],” Assad said.
“People want business degrees because it seems like it’s something that’s more employable,” they added. “[But] it does nothing to help any student in any other area that’s becoming less employable. Journalism programs are being cut, foreign language departments are being cut…the purpose of college, in my opinion, is it’s a place where we don’t just learn about what can get us a job.”
Assad grew up in Lafayette, Ind. where their mother was a lecturer at Purdue University. Assad said from the ages of 6–17, they were able to bear witness to how Purdue’s own co-op program affected students in less popular majors on campus, as well as what the program offered the local economy.
“Before the co-op program was fully established, [Purdue] had a decent liberal arts section, but where it was really attractive was its engineering departments and its Krannert School of Management and business management [program],” Assad said.
Eventually, however, Assad said Purdue began investing less in liberal arts programs. “It used to be a really well-rounded university,” they said, “but now it’s literally a waste of money if you’re not going there for an engineering or business degree.”
What this could mean for PSU, Assad added, is that “liberal arts [are] going to get cut further. The number of people who it actually helps is so much smaller than the marketing it does for the university. It’s going to help [PSU students] in the hundreds, not thousands.”
Assad is currently an ASPSU member of the Tuition Review Advisory Council and helped lead two strikes this term to convince the university administration to withdraw this year’s tuition hikes. Assad expressed frustration that after several alleged requests the administration never gave him a detailed budget breakdown.
Assad said this symbolizes that the administration keeps students in the dark about where their money is going, which takes away student’s control over their education.
“[The administration] spends more on things that we don’t care about and they fund things that make the university better marketing-wise,” they said. “I don’t need tons of PR for [PSU] to get my education and neither do any of us.”
Flynn stated “developing co-op placements for students is labor intensive and will require additional staff to be successful.” Flynn did not elaborate on how much it would cost to hire the one or two full-time staff the co-op committee anticipates it would take to get the program off the ground, or whether that investment would come from the administration, individual schools or outside the university.
A success story for Northeastern
Despite reservations from students and faculty at PSU, some Northeastern students say the co-op program has opened doors not guaranteed for a lot of college students.
According to Victoire Cointy, executive director of communications for Northeastern’s student government association and currently working at Zipcar through the co-op program, “90 percent of our graduates are employed full-time after graduation.”
She added, “Our co-op program reaches other cities, other states [and] other countries…If we were to only have relationships with employers in Boston then I feel like we would definitely be much more limited.”
The process of writing a resume, going through interviews, and even being rejected from some positions has been a great learning experience, Cointy continued. “It’s also a great way to check if you’re in the right field.”
“You can get co-ops from multiple different careers, and you get multiple networks that you can build off of,” Hostert added. Hostert is currently working in a co-op at the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Massachusetts.
He added, “I’m also interacting with people at the [Internal Revenue Service] and interacting with people in the district court and…in the state government as well.”
“It allows you to build connections outside of just one job,” Hostert said.
Assad said they acknowledge the benefits of co-ops, but said they worry that PSU, a university that struggles to keep up with its expenses every year, might end up selling out to the business community.
“I don’t think co-op programs are inherently evil,” Assad said. “A lot of people come to college because they’re seeking better employment, and it’s not easy to get hired without any experience when you come right out of college.”
However, Assad added, “I don’t think personally the student’s education should be more influenced by businesses. We’ve already seen it lead to way more administrative positions, narrowing job markets, programs that are super inefficient and raised tuitions and increased debt.”
“You can tie a lot of that,” they said, “[to treating] the university like a business instead of treating it as a public good [and] a public service.”