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Campus & Community

The First 50 Years of Co-op

November 26, 2019

Students in an electrical engineering laboratory circa 1917-1918. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.
Students in an electrical engineering laboratory circa 1917-1918. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020.

When Drexel University — then known as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry — launched its co-op program in 1919, it was at the perfect moment. World War I had just ended, the industrial revolution was peaking, and industry was hungry for managers versed in technology, innovation and business. Within academia, a nascent cooperative education movement had inspired a handful of schools to adopt programs that blended classroom learning with on-the-job experience. And Drexel’s second president Hollis Godfrey, ScD, who had advised President Woodrow Wilson’s government on ways to advance the technical preparation of soldiers, believed in the power of a practical education.

Under Godfrey, the young vocational school broadened into a modern, degree-granting institution. Yet it retained the ideals of its founder, financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel, who saw it as a place where men and women of all races, classes and religious backgrounds could learn a trade and contribute to society as citizens prepared for a rapidly changing world.  

Godfrey’s decision to embrace a cooperative education system preserved the founder’s progressive pragmatism and gave Drexel the tools to sustain a curriculum that could continuously adapt to the times.

Co-op started small, but has grown steadily. The first group of Drexel students to split time between the classroom and the professional world included 152 engineering students who worked at a handful of local companies like DuPont and Pennsylvania Railroad Co. Today, the program includes more than 1,500 companies employing 5,300 students from across 89 disciplines, constituting about 92 percent of all Drexel undergraduates.

And this year, when Drexel University is celebrating the centennial of its co-op program, it’s important to look back at those early days of co-op to see how much has been accomplished. How did the co-op program grow? How many students could complete co-ops? Who were the first co-op employers? DrexelNow has the numbers, statistics and data for the first 50 years of the Drexel Co-op program.

The First Co-op Students

The Drexel Co-op program was open to engineering majors at first, but it slowly expanded to include students in other fields.

  • 1919: The first four-year co-op is inaugurated in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and civil engineering.
  • 1923: A four-year co-op in chemical engineering is added.
  • 1924: The first five-year co-op at Drexel, which is for commerce and engineering, is started.
  • 1925: All engineering co-ops become five-year co-ops.
  • 1926: Inauguration of the five-year co-op in business administration.
  • 1929: A four-year co-op in retail management is introduced.
  • 1934: The four-year co-op in retail management is changed to a five-year co-op in merchandising.
  • 1938: The five-year merchandising co-op becomes a five-year co-op retail management co-op.
  • 1943: The five-year retail management co-op changes to the four-year co-op in retail management. The optional four-year co-op in home economics is also introduced.
  • 1947: Inauguration of the five-year co-op in metallurgical engineering.
  • 1951: Inauguration of the five-year co-op in physics, chemistry and biological science.

The First Co-op Employers

Some employers in the Drexel co-op network go way back, and some have fallen by the wayside. 

  • DuPont: joined 1922
  • Verizon (née Bell Telephone Co.): joined 1923
  • Philadelphia Electric Co. (PECO): joined 1923
  • General Electric Co.: joined 1925
  • Lit Brothers (defunct): joined 1926
  • Abbotts Dairies Inc. (defunct): joined 1926
  • Philadelphia Gas Works Co.: joined 1928
  • Strawbridge & Clothier (defunct): 1928
  • Sears, Roebuck and Co.: joined 1928
  • Campbell Soup Co.: joined 1929
  • Sunoco (née Sun Oil Co.): joined 1929
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer: joined 1933
  • Wanamaker’s (defunct): joined 1935
  • Lord & Taylor: joined 1938
  • Bethlehem Steel Co. (defunct): joined 1940
  • Price, Waterhouse & Co. (PricewaterhouseCoopers): joined 1940
  • Ritz Carlton Hotel: joined 1948
  • Breyer Ice Cream Co.: joined 1949
  • Eastman Kodak Co.: joined 1950
  • United Airlines Inc.: joined 1950
  • Sherwin-Williams: joined 1951

Top 10 Co-op Employers in 1969

Here are the companies that were hiring the most students at the time of the Drexel Co-op program's 50th anniversary:

  • Philadelphia Naval Shipyard: 120 students
  • Drexel Institute of Technology (Drexel University) 104 students
  • U.S. Government: 101 students
  • City of Philadelphia: 100 students
  • Sun Oil Co. (Sunoco): 87 students
  • Ford Motor Co.: 73 students
  • IBM: 69 students
  • Strawbridge and Clothier (defunct): 54 students
  • Allis-Chalmers (defunct): 26 students
  • Eastman Kodak Co.: 16 students

Drexel Co-op by the Decade

How many students were employed through the co-op program in its first five decades?

  • 1922­–1923 (first co-op cohort): 152 students
  • 1929–1930: 845 students
  • 1939–1940: 1,287 students
  • 1949–1950: 2,808 students
  • 1959­–1960: 4,252 students
  • 1969–1970: 3,372 students

About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.

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