Work-Based Learning Questions Answered

Here are some options you might not know about to get you where you want to be.
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June 9, 2022

What exactly is an apprenticeship, anyway? Why do some internships pay and some don’t? Don’t co-ops sell food, not work-based learning experiences? How does this work while we’re in the middle of a pandemic? And, of course, how do you get your bank account balance to go up—not down—while you make both the work and education sections of your resume look incredible at the same time?

Gather round, students, soon-to-be students, recent grads, and career-changers. Knowing the basics of all your work-based learning opportunities—and the major differences between each—will help you navigate the sea of options out there.

Registered Apprenticeship

Even though it’s become much more popular recently, this training model has been around in the US for a long time. And while most apprenticeship opportunities exist in the skilled trades, like construction, more Registered Apprenticeships are cropping up in healthcare, IT, and early education. So even if apprenticeship wasn’t on your radar before, it might be worth checking into opportunities.

According to the Department of Labor, a registered apprenticeship is a “plan designed to move an apprentice from a low or no skill entry-level position to full occupational proficiency.” In other words: No experience? No problem. Apprenticeships are built specifically for folks who are learning or want to learn how to succeed in a new career. Paid work starts on day one.

No matter what the occupation is, there are two main pieces to all Registered Apprenticeships, which can last anywhere from one to six years:

Related technical instruction (RTI): Apprentices take classes at a local college or sometimes from a non-higher education provider, like a union.

On-the-job training: Allows apprentices to work alongside experienced mentors who’ve been assigned to help them acquire needed skills.

Not only do you get regular pay boosts along the way, apprentices get qualified by earning an industry-recognized credential at the end of the program. Some apprenticeships are also rolled into college degree programs, so you don’t have to pick between an apprenticeship and college.

Lot of apprenticeships have continued to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic, or at the very least kept the classwork rolling through online options. It’s worth checking to see whether apprenticeships of interest are taking new applicants and what the in-person vs. online modality looks like now..


Interns work in all sorts of for-profit and nonprofit organizations, learning about the work environment and picking up relevant skills along the way. Internships can offer opportunities to explore a new field or to complement your education with work experience.

But on to the most important question: are you going to get paid? There’s been a much needed and pretty successful push in the last few years for Congressional and White House internships to pay, but that may or may not be the case for federal agency, state, or local government internships. Nonprofit organizations legally don’t have to pay their interns, though many do (including New America). Thanks to a 2018 federal rule change, it unfortunately got a little easier for for-profit companies to avoid paying interns, but lots of companies do pay. Finding out about pay, work responsibilities, and opportunities for mentorship ahead of time can help you see which internship opportunities might work well for you.

Lots of internships have migrated online during the pandemic, which has its pros and cons. Though it might feel challenging to build camaraderie in a virtual office environment, you might be able to apply to internships all across the country since location isn’t nearly as important for online internships.

Cooperative Education

Don’t have time to focus on work and class at the same time? This might be an option worth looking into! Instead of working on top of classwork, students in co-operative programs stop taking college classes for a set period of time to work for a designated employer, then switch back to classwork in the next semester. Co-ops used to be more popular than they are now, but there are colleges and universities across the country that still have this option. For example, the University of Cincinnati has a co-op opportunity that is over 100 years old. Students in a variety of degree programs—from urban planning to fashion design—can alternate semesters of classes with semesters of paid, full-time work. Students end up with 3-5 co-op work semesters, giving them at least a year of work experience in hand by the time they graduate. Does your school have any co-op work opportunities for you? It might be worth asking if colleges you’re considering have co-op opportunities available.

Federal Work-Study

Federal Work-Study is a financial aid program that subsidizes the wages of eligible students—graduate and undergraduate—with financial need, based on the results of their FAFSA. (Side note: If you’re thinking about going to college—or are in school—absolutely fill out a FAFSA. That’s how you’ll find out what kind of financial aid you can get from the federal government and, in some places, from your state too. Even if you think you won’t get much, apply anyway! You might be surprised.)

However—and this is so important to remember—if you’re eligible for Federal Work-Study dollars, you don’t get that money automatically. It’s not like other grants and scholarships you might have listed in your financial aid package. In order to use the Work-Study money, you need to apply and be hired for an eligible part-time job. Your campus financial aid office can help you figure out which on-campus—and maybe off-campus—jobs are eligible for Work-Study so you know where to apply. The job may or may not be related to what you’re studying, but Work-Study can be a good way to keep some cash coming in from a job that works around your class schedule.

There are so many ways to connect work and learning both inside and outside of traditional higher education. Finding the options that work best for you can feel daunting, but it’s possible to find ways to work, learn, and earn in ways that support your education, personal, and career goals.

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