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Gatekeepers of Engineering Workforce Diversity? The Academic and Employment Returns to Student Participation in Voluntary Cooperative Education Programs

Abstract

This study examines the effect of participation in cooperative education (co-op) programs on engineering undergraduate students’ academic and employment outcomes, with particular attention to diversity in engineering. Co-ops are partnerships between an academic institution and an employer designed to engage students in early practical work experience through rotations of full-time employment and full-time traditional classroom study. Previous studies highlight the positive academic and employment returns to participating in co-ops. However, among voluntary co-ops, it is unclear to what extent these potential benefits can be attributed to the causal effect of engagement in co-ops versus the selection of higher-performing students. This study addresses this selection issue by using propensity score matching. Data come from 12 cohorts of engineering undergraduate students from a large, research-intensive institution in the Midwest. Results indicate that co-op participants are more likely to graduate in an engineering major and to have higher overall grade point averages compared to their non-co-op peers. On average, co-op participants are also more likely to obtain engineering jobs and to earn higher starting salaries post-graduation than their non-co-op peers. Although Hispanic/Latino students are less likely to participate in co-ops, underrepresented racially minoritized students who complete co-ops are more likely to graduate in engineering and to earn higher starting salaries post-graduation than those who do not participate. Research findings provide support for promoting co-ops as a potential strategy to help improve student academic and employment outcomes with implications for potentially diversifying the engineering workforce downstream.

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Fig. 1

(adapted from Terenzini and Reason 2005; Reason 2009; and Main et al. 2020)

Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    We also performed the same analyses on the sample of students who graduated in any major, and the results are largely consistent across the two sets of samples.

  2. 2.

    In our analysis, the Spring and Fall semesters are each equivalent to 0.4 year, while the Summer session is equivalent to 0.2 year.

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Acknowledgments

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1329283. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors thank NSF for its support, as well as Matthew Ohland, Eckhard Groll, and SPHERE research group for their contributions.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Appendix Fig. 3 and Table 7.

Fig. 3
figure3

Kernel density of propensity score of co-op participation pre- and post-matching of the academic outcomes sample

Table 7 Assessment of unconfoundedness assumption

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Main, J.B., Johnson, B.N. & Wang, Y. Gatekeepers of Engineering Workforce Diversity? The Academic and Employment Returns to Student Participation in Voluntary Cooperative Education Programs. Res High Educ 62, 448–477 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-020-09596-7

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Keywords

  • Cooperative education programs
  • Diversity
  • Persistence
  • Employment outcomes
  • Propensity score matching
  • Engineering