Why would you think something was important if you never learned about it? This concept was a common theme throughout the panel- “Cooperatives in Higher Education: Why it Matters” at the Cooperative Network Annual Meeting on November 15th. For this panel Chris Kopka of Thrivent Church Solutions Group, Tom Pierson of CooperationWorks!, and David Swanson of Dorsey and Whitney LLP spoke about a seminar they teach at the University of Minnesota on Cooperatives and Collective Entrepreneurship along with Michael Boland, Director of The Food Industry Center and a U of M Professor. After realizing the lack of classes that discuss cooperatives at the University of Minnesota, these cooperative business leaders decided to do something about it - teach their own class. The four main organizers of this seminar act as facilitators for the class, introducing the guest lecturers from a variety of cooperatives and correcting student presentations when needed. During the forum, all three panelists frequently talked about how rare cooperative education is, and how important it is to reach out and encourage it in higher education.
Increasing education is not a new topic in the cooperative world. Figuring out how to integrate the cooperative business model into schools and the education system is something that has been ongoing. In fact, cooperatives are rarely taught in any level of education in America. Seldom is the cooperative business model taught in grade school, undergraduate, or graduate school, and so it is understandable that most people do not know what makes a cooperative a cooperative and why they are important for our communities. Co-ops should be more readily taught in schools as cooperatives play an important part in our economy and are far from a fringe movement. The table below shows some of the impact that cooperatives have on our economy. The research is done and summarized by the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives.
Table 2-2 summarizes economic activity across all sectors by cooperative type. The vast majority of cooperatives are owned by consumers, with most producer cooperatives existing in the agricultural sector. Overall, nearly 30,000 cooperatives in the United States account for >$3T in assets, over >$500B total revenue, $25B in wages and benefits, and nearly 1M jobs. The total number of individuals in the U.S. who are members of at least one cooperative is difficult to estimate because many individuals are members of multiple cooperatives. Consequently, the number of memberships reported in Table 2-2 represents the sum of all members of all the cooperatives in the U.S.
Cooperatives play a vital role in America and especially rural America. Farmers Union has realized this importance and focuses heavily on both youth and adult cooperative education. After all, it is an organization of farmers who have seen time and again the important impacts of rural cooperatives. According to the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, telephone cooperatives today serve 1.2 million rural Americans in 31 states. Furthermore our electric cooperatives are the “primary providers in most of the country’s rural areas” covering 75% of the countries electric distribution line land mass. The cooperative impact is not just in numbers, but also in the real community engagement, like coops sponsoring local campers to WFU Kamp Kenwood.
Wisconsin Farmers Union’s cooperative education program is unusual, but that is a good thing. It is not common that eight year olds understand the seven cooperative principles, what a dividend is, or the different sectors and types of cooperatives. It wasn’t until a high school personal finance class that I personally realized how unique my summer “education” was. It was after I asked why we were not learning about credit unions along with banks, and my teacher replied that they were too confusing; that I realized what I had been learning all those summers at Kamp Kenwood was quite special. Granted, this is not always the case in academia, but for a large portion of the population, a co-op is a word you see on a sign but don’t know much about. That is why it is crucial to continue finding was to support cooperative education at all levels, in order to train the next generation of people who support cooperatives and take an active role in them.
In looking towards ways to help increase overall cooperative education, the U of M professors encourage all cooperative businesses to go into classes and talk about what they do and how their co-op functions. But cooperative educators do not need to come solely from the business world. As I have learned through Wisconsin Farmers Union’s programs, cooperative education does not have to start at the business model. Instead, it can begin with simply talking about what cooperation means or how and why people work together- a lesson we could all take part in today.