With the cost of higher education soaring, a growing number of students and parents question whether the return on investment of a bachelor’s degree justifies the expense. And in the long shadow of the recession, more and more students demand that college education prepares them to immediately enter the workforce in the field they have trained. As the place that innovated and developed co-operative education (or co-op), the University of Cincinnati proudly claims to be the home of one of the best responses to those sorts of questions. 

Given the global popularity of co-op education today—used by 310,000 students from more than 1,000 universities in 43 countries in cooperation with 76,000 employers—you would think the wisdom of such a system was obvious from the beginning, but it wasn’t. When Herman Schneider arrived at UC as an engineering instructor in 1903 he had already unsuccessfully pitched the idea in two other cities. When he became dean of the UC College of Engineering in 1906 he again had the opportunity to make something happen.

Schneider believed that “it is a good thing for a man to sweat his way to the truth.” This was not a particularly popular idea in an institution that was dominated by the classical model of higher education where “scholars manifestly did not sweat,” observed Mary Reilly in her 2006 book The Ivory Tower and the Smokestack.

Schneider cajoled a one-vote majority of the university trustees into allowing him to implement his experiment. The trustees gave him just one year to prove its worth and made it clear that for “the failure of which, we will not assume responsibility.” In other words, Schneider’s job was on the line—so much for institutional nerve or leadership. 

Dean Schneider, an “iron-willed optimist,” according to Reilly, “dragged UC from the ivory tower into the world’s foundries and factories, mines and machine shops.” He recruited an initial class of 27 students and 12 companies willing to test his idea. The original model called for two students to share each job. While one spent the week at work, the other attended classes. On Saturday, they met to review the worksheets and switched roles. This pattern placed co-op students completely outside the broader academic, social and extracurricular rhythms of university life, forcing the co-ops to flock “together like sworn brothers,” remembers Richard Paulsen, ’12. 

Those early students in the “Cincinnati Plan” started at ground level, or below. Robert Conrow’s first co-op placement was in a coal mine in Nellis, W.Va. He later recalled that, “We have become accustomed to working all bent over… If there is any labor harder than shooting and loading coal, you’ll want to learn what it is—and stay away from it!”

The story of co-op education over the last century reflects the underlying values and larger shifts in society. After World War I, the College of Engineering and Commerce admitted the first seven women “co-eps.” Led by Ruth McFarlan, they entered the chemical engineering or commercial engineering (business) co-op programs. For decades, these women found themselves scorned by the male students and employers who took them reluctantly as co-ops and rarely offered jobs—certainly not at the same salaries as their male counterparts—upon graduation. 

The university never officially banned African Americans from the program, but since employers would not accept blacks in co-op positions, the program was effectively segregated until the early 1950s. The first African American co-ops were Henry Thomas Brown and Clark Beck. Brown made the Dean’s List every quarter, and eventually barely missed graduating first in his class in 1955, but the only jobs his coordinators could find was as a laborer on the factory floor at Republic Steel in Cleveland. Ultimately, he had to do most of his co-ops in UC labs because industrial jobs were closed. 

From these early beginnings, co-op education spread beyond the engineering and business colleges to Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) and the College of Nursing. Almost 3,500 UC students are enrolled every year in co-op programs, making UC the largest co-op program in any public university in the nation, and the third largest in the world. 

Cincinnati can claim only a handful of truly original contributions to the world. We should be proud that one of them is co-op education.