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Cooperative Education within a Liberal Arts Tradition.


The authors argue that the combination of a liberal arts classroom curriculum and a cooperative education program is a powerful one to prepare students for the workplace. Data are presented from a lifespan study of graduates of Antioch College's program to support the idea that skill development is possible in areas found lacking in college graduates by business leaders. The findings are interpreted as supporting several theories of how learning happens outside the classroom. Both secondary and post-secondary educators are encouraged to promote a variety of types of outside-the-classroom, work-based learning experiences for students.

Negotiating the Liberal Arts Tradition

Liberal arts colleges have a strong tradition of providing post-secondary students with a broadly based education. Most commonly the classes are small, and students have unmediated access to faculty. The liberal arts curriculum provides opportunities for students to gain both breadth and depth in their educational program. Students are introduced to a wide range of disciplines, primarily through a general education program, in hopes of them becoming well-rounded individuals.

Employers want students to graduate from college with a body of knowledge and particular skills. Liberal arts colleges provide strong educational programs for students to develop an extensive knowledge base but may not provide many opportunities for students to develop the necessary skills for the workplace. Employers feel that academic programs, for the most part, have not adequately provided students with these essential skills to be competent in the workplace (Foggin, 1992). They suggest colleges drastically change their way of preparing students for employment (Muller, Porter, & Rehder, 1991; Gardner & Korth, 1997).

The Business-Higher Education Forum (1997) created a task force to study the gap between college preparation and graduates' job readiness and to make recommendations to close that gap. Teams composed of a corporate and university chief executive officer visited 10 corporations and 12 colleges and universities to interview campus and corporate officials about the preparation of students for the workforce. They found misperceptions in both corporations and on campuses about each sector's understanding of the needs and concerns of the other. Business leaders agreed that recent graduates were deficient in communication skills; the ability to work in teams; flexibility; the ability to accept ambiguity comfortably; the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds; understanding of globalization and its implications; and ethics training.

How can liberal arts colleges respond to these challenges to help students align their educational paths with their career plans and provide the kinds of skills that employers say they want? Cooperative education is an excellent educational model to introduce students to, and prepare them for, the rigors of the workplace. Cooperative education prepares students to make a gradual transition from college to the workplace by providing students with opportunities to explore the world beyond the classroom. During co-op experiences, students are neither "just students" nor are they full-fledged employees; rather, they are both at the same time. Through the educational experiences gained from this dual role, students begin developing the necessary skills to transition more easily from student to professional.

Integrating a co-op program into a liberal arts curriculum is not easy. Colleges and universities are accustomed to scheduling students into consecutive study terms on campus as "captive audiences" for sequentially organized classes and regularly scheduled extracurricular activities. It's a challenge to build in opportunities for students to leave campus for work terms in a way that supports and extends the classroom program but still allows students to build community on-campus and find the courses they need to fulfill graduation requirements. The philosophical underpinnings and the practices of cooperative education naturally encroach on boundaries established by traditional models of teaching and learning in order to provide students with diverse educational experiences and to prepare them for the challenges of the workplace. But we argue that encouraging students to work and learn outside the classroom yields many more benefits than losses.

Most co-op programs are vocational in nature: students use co-op jobs to build specific career skills, usually closely tied to courses in their majors. The National Commission for Cooperative Education asserts this career-related emphasis in the definition of co-op. They define co-op as a:
 structured educational strategy integrating classroom studies with learning
 through productive work experiences in a field related to a students'
 academic or career goals. It provides progressive experiences in
 integrating theory and practice. Co-op is a partnership among students,
 educational institutions and employers, with specified responsibilities for
 each party (Hutcheson, 1999, p. 5).

Another model of co-op, sometimes called the environmental model, recognizes a wide range of learning opportunities throughout the entire experience of co-op, not just the career-related learning. Similar to Dewey's (1966) understandings of what he referred to as occupationally based education, this pedagogical approach to co-op uses a broader definition of what can be learned on co-op than the vocational model. As he argued:
 Gardening, for example, need not be taught for the sake of preparing future
 gardeners, or as an agreeable way of passing time. It affords an avenue of
 approach to knowledge of the place farming and horticulture have had in the
 history of the race and which they occupy in present social organization.
 Carried on in an environment educationally controlled, they are means for
 making a study of the facts of growth, the chemistry of soil, the role of
 light, air and moisture (Dewey, 1966, p. 200).

For Dewey, the point of occupationally based education is not to prepare students for jobs but for the broad requirements of citizenship in a democratic society. From this perspective, the aim of co-op is to help students gain conscious direction and control of the learning process. This model of co-op may fit a liberal arts curriculum better than a vocational one, because it supports and extends the broad goals of the liberal arts tradition.

Antioch College's Cooperative Education Program

The idea of learning from experience pervades Antioch College's education. Antioch's Cooperative Education Program fits the environmental model described above. It is based on the assumption that real-world, off-campus work experiences significantly enhance students' educational careers. As Algo Henderson, a former Antioch president, stated, "A liberal education is an exploring education that students seek wisdom wherever wisdom can be found in the record of the past, in the accounts of contemporary experience and in their own participation in the world around them" (Henderson and Hall, 1946). The co-op program provides students further opportunities to explore learning beyond the classroom.

Arthur Morgan started Antioch's cooperative education program in 1921. Morgan had a long career as a flood control engineer, later designing the Tennessee Valley Authority (Dawson, 1995). He felt that the educational preparation of the hundreds of young engineers he hired was sorely lacking: "They knew little of history or literature or economics or biology or philosophy, and often were not aware that they had missed anything" (Morgan, 1955, p. 8). According to Morgan, the goal of an engineering education should be to train individuals, not just to train engineers. In addition to the need for a broad-based education, Morgan felt that theory should be joined with practice (Sanders, 1996). Morgan reinvented the Antioch curriculum to combine liberal arts learning with off-campus work experience.

Since the 1920's, every student at Antioch has participated in the program of alternating work and study. The College's trimester calendar requires each student to be engaged in the program of work and study year round. All students have co-op advisors; faculty members who are responsible for helping them plan and implement their programs of cooperative education. To meet degree requirements, students need to complete five co-op experiences and seven study terms. A co-op experience is usually a full-time job, lasting four months, and adequate planning and evaluation with a co-op advisor are required. Students registered for co-op terms are defined as full-time students and earn 12 credits when they complete the four months of work, mm in a paper or project and have a crediting conference. Each faculty member in the Co-op Department is responsible for facilitating and evaluating their advisees' co-op experiences, developing jobs and maintaining relationships with employers throughout the world.

Learning objectives are broadly defined in Antioch's liberal arts co-op program: having meaningful experiences; orientation to the world of work and service; learning other communities; survival and life skills; personal growth; praxis; connections and networking; cross-cultural experiences and learning; and travel and exploration of the world. The educational opportunities that develop from this diverse and wide range of learning objectives allow students:

* to multiply their options by counteracting the narrow experience of being on one campus for four years, to explore a wide range of career options, and to use leading-edge facilities in real world settings;

* to help them discover or affirm their purpose, find out what they love or make sure early-on that they like working in an area they have always imagined for themselves;

* and to help them build their capacity to adapt, work with different teams, discover problems to solve, and work confidently in any setting.

The Nature of Learning in Cooperative Education

Research on cooperative education learning can be divided into two categories: studies of learning outcomes and studies of learning processes (Fletcher, 1990). In terms of learning outcomes, Grantz and Thanos (1996) described influences on students' academic learning from their internships, like recognizing multiple perspectives and taking responsibility for their learning. In terms of career entry, cooperative education has been shown to enhance career identity (Weston, 1986), career planning (Mueller, 1992), employment opportunities (Eyler, 1995), and career decisions (Hackett, Croissant, and Schneider, 1992). Once students graduate and enter a career, their short-term career progress has been found to be positively influenced by prior participation in cooperative education, including the level of job responsibility they achieve (Gore, 1972), involvement in decision-making activities (Jarrell, 1974), and salary level (Gardner, 1992; Seidenberg, 1990). Psychological or personal outcomes positively related to co-op experience include students' short-term gains in the social adjustment, attachment to their university, commitment to educational goals (Carrell & Rowe, 1993), autonomy, and the quality of their interpersonal relationships (Mueller, 1992).

Compared to the large number of studies on the outcomes of cooperative education learning, there have been few studies aimed at describing the learning process. Michelson (1996) argued that experiential forms of education must be built on a sound theoretical foundation so that we make intentional decisions about the teaching and learning process. There are various theoretical perspectives on experiential learning available for consideration (Cates and Jones, 1999). For example, Kolb's (1984) experiential learning theory is perhaps the most well-known. According to Kolb, the learning cycle involves four stages: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation. The learner engages in an experience, reflects on the experience from various perspectives, forms concepts that integrate his/her observations with theories, and uses these theories to guide future action.

Fletcher (1990) suggested that Bandura's theory of self-efficacy might also be a useful theoretical framework for understanding how learning happens in cooperative education. Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of managing challenging tasks. Bandura argued that this sense of self-efficacy is even more critical than one's ability in predicting performance. Co-op may offer repeated opportunities to develop self-efficacy by putting the student in contact with many new challenges.

One of the few theories about co-op learning that has some research support is the theory of practical intelligence by Sternberg and Wagner (1986). Practical intelligence is what enables us to acquire practical skills: "knowing how" rather than "knowing that." The low correlations between IQ measures and job performance suggest that most competencies required in the workplace are not measured by standard tests of intelligence. Williams, Sternberg, Rashotte and Wagner (1993) found differences in a measure of practical intelligence between a group with as little as five months of cooperative education experience and a control group with no such experience.

Situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) is another framework that may have particular utility in understanding the process of cooperative education learning within a liberal arts curriculum. Lave and Wenger argue that the traditionally invoked dichotomies of abstract vs. concrete knowledge, theory vs. practice, and contextualized vs. de-contextualized learning are wrongheaded. Rather, they see all learning as contextual, and the result of social participation. Traditional learning theories that focus on the transmission of knowledge are replaced by a new model: Learners are newcomers entering a community of practice. Old-timers in that community of practice, if they are good mentors, make the practice transparent to the newcomers. Newcomers learn by taking legitimate, albeit peripheral, roles as participants in the practice community.

From a situated learning perspective, the general education requirements of a liberal arts curriculum can be viewed as successive invitations to students (newcomers) into legitimate peripheral participation as artists, scientists, or historians. Ideally then, newcomers come to talk and act like old-timers (faculty/practitioners) within a given community of practice (not just reproduce talk about the practice on tests which are exchanged for grades). The model of newcomers and old-timers can also help us understand how learning happens when students enter a new cooperative education workplace: most co-op students are offered opportunities for legitimate peripheral participation. In both the classroom and co-op situations, learning is reflected in activity that demonstrates understanding. But newcomers also learn what is perhaps even more important to them for their post-college lives: they learn how to enter a new community of practice as a newcomer. This is what is often called "learning how to learn," or becoming a "lifelong learner," traits that appear frequently in college mission statements but ones that are rarely measured. At Antioch College we have embraced situated learning theory because it offers one perspective that explains both liberal arts classroom learning and learning on cooperative education jobs. The theory also provides a useful framework for interpreting the data we are collecting in a lifespan study of Antioch graduates.

A Lifespan Study of Cooperative Education

An on-going study at Antioch College of students who graduated in 1946-55 uses a longitudinal approach to draw on data collected while the students were enrolled in college and 50 years later. We chose this graduate cohort so that respondents could reflect back over their entire careers and report on learning that seems important to them from the point of retirement.

We collected both quantitative data (like the number of different co-op and career jobs they held before retirement) and qualitative data (like reflective papers written just after each co-op job and saved in our archive and interviews with them as retired adults). Study findings have been reported elsewhere (Linn, 1999; Lima & Ferguson, 1999; Meisler & Lima, 2000) and are summarized briefly here to support our contention that cooperative education within a liberal arts model is viewed by graduates as impactful on their work and personal lives.

We first asked a random sample of 120 graduates from 1946-55 to complete a Work History Questionnaire in which they provided details about every job they held between graduation and retirement. Over 60% of those recruited into the study complied (N=73). From the archive we drew their resumes of co-op jobs, employer ratings of their co-op job performances, and reflective papers they wrote to demonstrate their learning. We then computed summary statistics to describe the graduates' co-op and career histories, and searched for patterns and relationships between the co-op and career variables.

Our findings provide some support for the theories of learning described above. For example, we used employer ratings of the students' co-op work performances as a proxy variable for practical intelligence, and the earning of graduate degrees as a proxy for the kind of academic intelligence that IQ tests measure. We found that students who earned low performance ratings by their co-op employers were more likely than students with higher job performance ratings to go on to earn graduate degrees (Linn & Ferguson, 1999). We interpreted this finding as supporting Sternberg and Wagner's (1986) theory that measures of practical intelligence ("knowing how") tap a different capability than more traditionally defined measures of academic intelligence ("knowing that").

We used the variables number of different co-op jobs taken and number of different career jobs taken to test Bandura's (1986) theory of self-efficacy, the theory that Fletcher (1990) suggested might explain the power of co-op learning. One hypothesis derived from self-efficacy theory is that the more domains in which students challenge themselves and succeed, the more likely they are to seek out subsequent challenges (Friedman, 1996). This hypothesis would be supported if the two counts of different jobs (i.e., challenges) taken in college and after graduation were positively correlated. This correlation was non-significant; we tried looking for more complex patterns of co-op and career experiences.

The two counts of jobs taken (co-op and career) were split at their medians. The variables were crossed, yielding four patterns of co-op/career job taking: low/low, low/high, high/low, and high/high. For example, the respondents in the low/high group chose only a few different co-op job experiences (returning to the same employer repeatedly) but went on to take a high number of different jobs across their careers. These groups differed significantly from each other on a number of variables, especially self-employment (P2 (3) = 11.9, p =0.008). Respondents with consistent patterns of job-taking across their lives (low/low and high/high patterns) were significantly more likely to be self-employed at some time than those with other patterns. In addition, we found that all the self-employed respondents who were entrepreneurs (versus solo professionals or consultants) fell in the two consistent patterns. We interpreted these findings as follows: respondents in the low/low group likely accumulated enough capital (by sticking with one firm, sometimes the same employer from co-op to career) to strike out on their own as self-employed entrepreneurs. The respondents in the high/high group, we reasoned, accumulated not capital but self-efficacy, by repeatedly placing themselves in challenging positions and so accumulated domains in which they felt competent, to allow them to take the risk of starting new businesses.

The stories told in the archived co-op papers and in the interviews conducted recently were analyzed using computer-aided qualitative analysis (QSR Nud*ist Vivo, 1999). Some stories demonstrated learning that reflects the skills found wanting in college graduates in the report of the Business-Higher Education Forum (1997).

For example, here is an excerpt from a co-op paper written in 1949 from a chemistry major who went on to be a project manager at a well-known national laboratory. Here he was working as a carpenter's assistant, a co-op job not directly related to his chemistry major but the job he identified as most important 50 years later, because of the communication skills he learned there:
 However, the most important thing I learned was something quite different
 from manual skills. At the end of the first week I was already to quit, not
 because the job was not acceptable but because I simply could not get along
 with the boss. He possesses one of the most objectionable personalities I
 have ever run across--extremely short tempered and very belittling and
 belligerent. I reasoned, though, that letting myself get angry with him
 would do no good, I'd either be fired or else forced to quit. At first it
 had been impossible for us to carry on a casual conversation because of his
 caustic manner of belittling absolutely anything. It took a lot of patience
 and willpower on my part but progressing slowly up until the time I left
 our relationship improved so that we were on friendly terms. What made him
 as he is I don't know. He had no friends and could not get along with his
 wife or children. I considered it an accomplishment that we could get along
 at least acceptably. If I learned nothing else, I saw that patience is one
 of the prime factors in dealing with people.

The next excerpt is also from a chemistry major at Antioch, and again he named a co-op job unrelated to his major as the most important in an interview 50 years later. Here he was working as a librarian's assistant for the British Information Service in New York, and learned flexibility and had to tolerate ambiguity:
 The library is a medium-sized affair containing a complete collection of
 books, British magazines and current newspaper pamphlets and Her Majesty's
 Stationary Office Documents. I've mentioned these documents because they
 form a big part of the job of the "library boy" at BIS. In the library are
 several bookstacks piled high with dusty filing boxes containing the
 documents for the House of Commons, House of Lords, and the aforementioned
 "HMSO" documents similar to the literature published by the various cabinet
 departments of the U.S. Government. Each type of document has its own
 "system" for filing. Altogether, this makes for no system at all. And so
 the library boy gets gray.

When the author of this paper was down-sized from a chemical company at mid-life, he remembered this library experience, went back to school to earn a Masters in Library Science, and worked as a librarian until his retirement.

Next is a passage from a co-op paper written in 1949 from a secondary education major working at a community house with inner-city boys. As a middle-class white college student, this was an early experience in working with diverse others, and he shows a developing sense of his own privilege as well as opinions about the community house's practice of segregating the younger, but not the older, boys' sports teams by race:
 To my understanding, the policy of segregation was adopted because, when
 mixed, whites and blacks tended to remain clannish, and, sporadically,
 friction resulted. For a reason unknown to me, whites and blacks continued
 together in the Older Boys' Group and, in my experience, have gotten along
 very harmoniously--mixing to a surprising degree. It would be to the
 advantage of both races, I believe, for the younger groups to be mixed once
 again. While some awkwardness and tension, and perhaps additional friction,
 might result, I think that these might be much more short-lived than some
 would suspect. I base this belief an observations I've made of Negroes and
 whites in the Older Boys' Group and formally and informally throughout the
 building and neighborhood. I understand that these observations have been
 made by a comfortably-off Anglo-Saxon college student who by definition is
 apt to take a rosier view of things than is warranted, but realizing the
 limitations of my judgment, I do think the experiment can and should be

Finally, we offer an excerpt from a political science major who worked as a mail courier at the Research Institute of America in 1946. While globalization was not yet on the horizon in this era, note the cultural relativism reflected in this young woman's co-op paper. Her observations stem not from her on-the-job experiences, but from her living situation in New York City:
 One-hundred-eleventh Street is not a slum. From the outside it looks like a
 good section. Yet I feel now that I have a little more understanding of
 these conditions. Not only is it true that there is little time to clean
 house after work, but also no one likes to take a bath in a tub from which
 the cockroaches have to be swept, and with only two burners, it is hard to
 eat enough vegetables for a balanced diet. One finds oneself living on
 bread to a large degree. This is interesting to watch for a short period
 when one knows that one can go home again at the end and be just as before;
 only retaining a knowledge that things are different in another environment
 and knowing when one reads that federal housing projects are a waste since
 there is a class of people that ruin any place they get into, that it is
 rather the place that ruins the people.

From the stories told in the co-op papers and interviews with the graduates at the point of retirement that support the notion (Lave and Wenger, 1991) that when co-op students are brought into new communities of practice as legitimate peripheral participants, powerful learning results that they remember 50 years later. The stories also support Dewey's (1966) argument that occupationally based education is not just about learning job skills related to one's future profession: note that three of the four excerpts cited above involve learning outside the areas of the students' majors or learning that happened after work hours, yet it was this learning that seemed most important to the students at the point of retirement.


We have argued that when a liberal arts classroom curriculum is combined with cooperative education, learning that is both broad and deep can result. Liberal learning plus cooperative education offer a powerful combination that makes sense in terms of preparing students for the workplaces of tomorrow, for several reasons.

First, there is evidence that today's teenagers need help in learning about the pathways to the careers they want. Schneider and Stevenson (1999/2000) found that teenagers across all demographic groups are very ambitious compared to the past. For example, the number of adolescents in their study who wanted to become lawyers was five times the projected number of job openings. But despite these high ambitions, few of the teenagers they studied knew what the educational paths are to their career objectives. Liberal arts co-op programs provide maximum opportunities to explore realistic career paths.

Second, business leaders are missing what are called "soft skills" in the college graduates they hire: communication and experience working with diverse others that may not result from narrow pre-professional classroom programs. Graduates from liberal arts co-op programs have repeated opportunities to develop these kinds of skills.

Finally, there is growing evidence that notions like corporate loyalty, a straight shot up a career ladder, and employer-guided career development no longer characterize the workplace (Gardner, 1996; Lewis, 2000; Tulgen, 1995). From our own study of Antioch graduates' perceptions of life-long effects of a liberal arts cooperative education program, we are finding evidence that practical intelligence, self-efficacy, and learning how to learn are supported when college students combine work and study.

While a full-fledged cooperative education program might be an ideal vehicle for career preparation, there is a wide range of work-based learning experiences that secondary and post-secondary educators could recommend and support: service learning, internships, apprenticeships, and even job shadowing have the potential for helping students discover their calling and develop skills that employers want.


The research reported in this article was supported by research awards from the Cooperative Education Association, the Midwest Cooperative Education Association, the Cooperative Education Division of the American Society for Engineering Education, the National Association of Student Employment Administrators, the Antioch College Faculty Fund, a MacArthur grant to Antioch College, and the Pierson-Lovelace Foundation.

For References

see issue's website http ://

Adam Howard, Antioch College, OH Patricia Linn, Antioch College, OH

Adam is Assistant Professor of Cooperative Education. His research interests include cooperative education, service-learning, and the influence of class status on academic achievement. Patricia is Dawson Professor of Cooperative Education and recently won the Ralph W. Tyler Award for outstanding research from the Cooperative Education Association.
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Author:Linn, Patricia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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