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Drexel’s Future, Drexel’s Past

The news media, the government, and many academics are saying that higher education is at a tipping point.  Disruptive innovation and a loosening of what the Obama administration has called “unnecessary regulations” portend major changes for America’s colleges and universities.   In July of this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said,  “Higher education is approaching a crossroads, where leaders will be asked to choose between incremental and transformational change.”  One month later, the Obama administration issued the “President’s plan to make college more affordable: A better bargain for the middle class,” which among other things challenges “colleges to offer students a greater range of affordable, high-quality options than they do today.”

Joseph Mullin, Associate Department Head of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering  may be able to shed some light on higher education’s way forward by looking at Drexel's past.  Mullin earned his undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Drexel in the early 1960s and has taught here for over 45 years.  He describes Drexel’s image in the ‘50s and ‘60s as that of a “blue collar university, where large companies like Arco and the Pennsylvania Railroad sent draftsmen to school at night to become engineers.”   Mullin explains, “We had a considerable enrollment of people working during the day and going to school at night.  Some people look down on that and say, ‘Well, geez, that’s an evening college.’  I have to remind them that that’s what Anthony J. Drexel thought he was starting.”

At the time Drexel was founded, higher education was available only to the elite few.  Our founder’s vision for the Drexel Institute was directly opposed to that model.  Speaking at Anthony J. Drexel’s memorial service, Drexel’s first president, James MacAlister, described the founder’s vision: “After a good deal of that careful consideration which he was accustomed to give to all his undertakings, he came to the conclusion that in no way could his money be so well spent as in promoting the education of the people.  His wide experience of life and his sympathetic nature led him to take a deep interest in the masses who have to depend upon their own energies for making their way in the world.”1

When the Drexel Institute was founded, A. J. Drexel could not have anticipated the extent to which the federal government’s financial aid policies would grow to support his vision for educating “the masses who depend upon their own energies for making their way in the world,” yet he was broad enough in his thinking that he recognized the limits of what he could predict.  According to Drexel’s sixth president, James Creese, when A. J. Drexel was urged to “define an over-all policy for the Institute, he is reported to have said, ‘I  know the world is going to change, and the Institute will change with it.  I do not want to tie it down.”2

It appears that the world is experiencing one of those changes that A. J. Drexel knew would come. US higher education is at a turning point where the barriers to entry—and more importantly, completion of a college degree—will once again be challenged, not unlike the way A. J. Drexel challenged them in 1891.  Part of the “President’s plan to make college more affordable” is to shift financial aid funding toward colleges and universities that are identified as a “better bargain” while steering funding away from those that are not.

Drexel University is not able to offer many of its students the same kind of bargain that it did in 1891, and even in the 1950s and ‘60s when Joseph Mullin was an undergraduate student.  As a commuter, living at home, Mullin was able to support himself for a year on the money he made during co-op.  Many students worked during the day and went to school at night, and their employers paid their undergraduate tuition.

The employment landscape has changed such that few Drexel students are able to pay their tuition and living expenses for the year on their co-op salaries, and even fewer employers are offering tuition remission to undergraduate students.  These changes have made the definition of “value” and “bargain” more complex than they were fifty years ago, but  Drexel has found ways to continue to provide a high quality education while preparing students to advance quickly in today’s workforce. 

1 Introductory Address. (1896). Service in Memory of Anthony J. Drexel. Philadelphia, PA.: Dornan,

2 Creese, J. (1949). A. J. Drexel (1826 – 1893) and his industrial university. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.