Crossing Market Street in Philadelphia is like leaving one universe and entering another: from the ivory toweriness of the University of Pennsylvania into the gritty realworldliness of Drexel University. The two schools sit directly across the street from each other and the transition couldn’t be more abrupt, like stepping outside Hogwarts and suddenly finding yourself in … Philadelphia. What’s interesting is that while Penn is mostly famous for being an ivy, Drexel has carved out an identity that is less about a collegiate brand than it is about the college experience itself. As one of only a handful of schools offering a work-study model, popularly known as a “co-op,” Drexel’s vision of the future of higher education is more than 125 years in the making.
Inspired by his own teenaged experience working in his father’s bank, Anthony J. Drexel’s idea was to integrate academics with employment, preparing not only minds but also navigating career paths in new industries. It’s a concept that is perhaps even more salient today than it was when Mr. Drexel plunked down some $3 million ($78 million in today’s dollars) to make it a reality in 1891. It was a fairly radical idea at the time, upending the notion that college was exclusive to privileged men pursuing the ministry, law or medicine. More than a century later, Drexel still seems ahead of its time and it’s a wonder that more institutions haven’t “co-opted” the idea.
Unlike most other schools, Drexel runs year-round, in quarterly increments that enable its students to take a full-time, paying job in the real-world for six months of the academic year. Many students find work right in Philadelphia, but co-options can be had in some 47 countries and 30 states. This unusual plan is offered on a four-year basis, in which students take one job, or a five-year program that includes three jobs. The gross median salary per co-op job is $18,044, which helps offset the school’s approximately $50K per year tuition, not including room and board. The value of this is self-evident, of course, and statistically supported by the 96% employment rate of its students within a year of graduation.
We met up with one of our former students, now a Drexel senior, whose experience added yet another dimension to the school’s already impressive reputation. He had transferred from a large, state university, in part attracted to Drexel’s 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio and median class size of just 19. Having completed his one co-op, he persuaded the school to allow him to take a second, but with a twist. Instead of finding employment at an existing company, he launched his own start-up under the aegis of the school’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, which provides him with workspace, mentoring and other resources. He took us on a quick tour of the institute’s facilities, and it is way past cool, complete with its own 3-D printer. The best part is, Drexel is helping to fund his venture with $15,000. That’s just not a college story you hear every day, or any day.
For all of A.J. Drexel’s prescience, and the remarkable success of the school’s co-op model, this university certainly is not for everyone. It presupposes that the purpose of college is to find a job, a proposition that may not appeal to those who envision scholastics in perhaps less transactional terms. It is also about as urban a setting as one is likely to encounter on a college tour, a mostly stony presence without much in the way of greenery or other gauzy accoutrements of dreamy college campuses. If you visit, you will undoubtedly see the magnificent, Italianate interior of its Main Building (pictured above), home of the Admissions Office. Be sure to see the world’s second-largest biofilter, a five-story cascade of greenery in the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, that is said to create the freshest air in Philadelphia. And don’t miss the stunning grand staircase in Lebow Hall, home of the business school, which is designed to minimize elevator use and maximize interactions between students.
Drexel is one of those schools where it’s more about what’s inside than outside. Interestingly, our tour of Penn on the other side of Market Street was conducted entirely outside; maybe that’s a metaphor of sorts for Penn’s 7.5% acceptance rate versus Drexel’s 75%. Clearly, Penn is not for everyone either, but it’s up to you to decide whether it’s what’s inside Drexel that matters most.