Boston — Northeastern University, today one of the largest private universities in the United States, can trace much of its growth to its cooperative education program , one of the most extensive in the nation.
Of 45,000 full and part time undergraduates, 12,500 take part in the program, measuring the ''real value'' of their education in both academic and economic terms.
These students earn an average of $20,500 during their five years at Northeastern, which enables them to cut the cost of their education significantly. And, because of the nearly two years of on-the-job experience accrued during the program, many graduates have a head start on the salary and position ladder.
Northeastern president Kenneth Ryder refers to the co-op program as ''a $55 million grant that the students give to themselves annually.'' The students' earnings from their co-op jobs are circulated back to the school in the form of tuition, books, and other expenses.
In addition to the financial advantages, co-op students benefit in a number of other ways. They gain:
* Professional career counseling throughout college years.
* Co-op internships related to career goals.
* Opportunity to test career interests while on co-op.
* Close to two years of on-the-job experience upon graduation.
* Opportunity to fulfill requirements for professional and licensing examinations.
Each student confers with faculty coordinators. In the initial stages of the program, career goals are discussed and students are advised on what types of jobs are available to them and which might best further their career plans.
Representatives from companies such as GTE, Mobil, and Wang visit the school and explain the opportunities available to prospective interns. Jobs are awarded on the basis of scholarship and interests.
Sitting at his desk in a Shawmut bank in downtown Boston, Joe Amari, a Northeastern senior majoring in business administration, says, ''I chose Northeastern because my older brother had trouble landing a job after graduating from a standard four-year college. His lack of experience hindered him.
''My decision to go through a co-op program has already paid off. I am graduating this June and the bank has offered me a full-time position. In fact, I am working full-time now and finishing up my schooling at night at Northeastern.''
As with many other students in his field, Mr. Amari's bank internship started him as a teller. With each successive phase of the program he would train and work in a different part of the bank. The university courses in accounting, marketing, management, economics, and finance complemented the practical experience he was gaining.
Mr. Amari earlier learned about the type of work environment and situation he was not comfortable with. He says: ''My first co-op internship was a disappointment. The company I started with did not challenge me, so nothing was gained. The next time out, however, I was one of five interns with the Shawmut Bank. This year four of us will be graduating, and all of us have been offered permanent positions at the bank.''
Ken Beaulieu also found his field through trial and error, starting out as an accounting major and transferring to journalism. During his five years at NU he has done co-op with the Boston Globe and several suburban newspapers.
In between periods at a Boston Bruins hockey game, which he was covering for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Mr. Beaulieu said: ''I will be graduating in June and working full-time for the Eagle. Co-op was beneficial to me because I was able to learn the technical aspects of journalism and then apply that knowledge in a practical way that relates to my career directly. Tonight, for instance, I am doing a profile on one of the Bruins and a summary of the game.''
Over the years Northeastern's successful program has served as a model for other schools.
Dr. Joseph Barbeau, acting director of life career planning at NU, says, ''Northeastern offers administrators from other schools a microcosmic look at our cooperative program in week-long training sessions.''
Over the past five years more than 3,500 visitors from other schools have attended such sessions. Dr. Barbeau says, ''During the sessions counseling methods, curriculum structuring and the development of relationships with the business community are discussed. At present over 3,000 companies throughout the world employ Northeastern students.
Operating in a major metropolitan area has been a big asset. Students from computer sciences have the high-tech belt on Route 128 to draw from. There are also a number of insurance firms and major hospitals and museums.''
Originally established as a commuter school for students living in the Boston area, Northeastern now has a diverse student body from all parts of the world.