College Life

Written by Olivia Mauchamer

The years following World War I saw a drastic shift in the culture of college and university campuses in America. Two popular notions about college life which exist today— the emphasis on the necessity of higher education for a successful career, and also that college is a time for young adults to have fun and experience life away from home—both have their origins in this period between the world wars.

One of the immediate effects of World War I on college life was that higher education in general gained more prominence and was taken more seriously than before. The war drove home the reality that the world was in need of strong, educated leaders, which resulted in a spike in college attendance. From the beginning of the century to the end of the 1920s, college enrollment increased 400%.[1] In addition to this, college curriculums were greatly developed, and the array of majors and areas of study expanded from around 5 to over 50.[2] The reasons for these changes were the shifting values and priorities of the post-war society—the new philosophy was in essence that careers began with a college education.[3] Due to an influx in incomes during this period, there was an expectation that all good parents ought to get their children to college, regardless of the sacrifice to themselves.[4] While college had been important before, for the first time it entered the mainstream of society.

Despite the serious considerations which drove parents to send their sons and daughters to college in the 1920s, their children were largely unconcerned about the heavy issues in the world, and for the most part used the opportunity to enjoy themselves. Some estimations assert that college students in the 1920s spent approximately 90% of their time on extracurricular activities, which could include athletics, membership in fraternities and other clubs or societies, and interacting with friends and other students at various events or social gatherings.[5] Sororities and fraternities became hugely popular during this period, and became the “focal point of social life” essentially controlling and orchestrating campus society.[6] A study on campus life in America published in 1928 by Robert Cooley Angell reveals that in general, students at that time did not show much interest in “intellectual interest,” and only a “small minority” seem desirous of learning.[7] He claims that overall students have “little desire for a broader and deeper understanding of life, and lists movie theaters, driving, and dancing as some of the popular alternatives to serious study.”[8] Cooley’s findings highlights what seems to have been a unique trend with college students in the 1920s—the desire to break away from tradition and to pave their own way in the new modern world. This breaking away took a variety of forms and applications, most significantly through issues such as sexuality, the image of the modern woman, dancing, smoking, etc.

The rebellious tendency, however, remained largely in the social realm, and rarely broke into the intellectual. Most students expressed themselves through the trending extracurricular activities and not so much through political activism or social change. Those who asserted themselves more seriously are referred to by Helen Horowitz as the true “college rebels” and largely were the same minority who dedicated themselves to serious study.[9] It was through the influence of these students that at times the “college press ceased to be a sports page and became the sounding board for controversy.”[10] Despite the casual fun-loving students considering themselves to be breaking down the walls of tradition, to the true rebels they seemed to “represent establishment and conformity.”[11] The true rebels remained the minority within the student body throughout the 1920s.

The 1920s also saw a change in the types of students who attended colleges and universities. Though students remained, for the most part, males from a wealthy Anglo-Saxon protestant background, others such as women, Jews, and those from the middle class began to break into the sphere gradually, though they were shut out of many social club and events. Fraternities especially were known to be “hotbeds of snobbery and politics” and rarely allowed outsiders or minorities to join their ranks.[12] Anti-Semitism was a problem on some campuses as it was in the rest of America during the 1920s as a result of a widespread nativist sentiment.[13]

There was also something of hierarchy amongst the students in regard to their class standing. Despite the desire to break away from the convention of past generations, upperclassmen considered it their job to transmit the college culture to the freshmen, thus maintaining their own traditions.[14] New freshmen would often be forced by the upperclassmen to wear some sort of visible sign of their naiveté, such as a hat etc., in order to make them understand their place in the campus culture.[15] In this way, the pressure for conformity to the standards and conventions of the student body was significant among the students, and any rebellion was frowned upon, as can be seen by the minority and frustration of the serious students. The campus was it own society, which, while it may have been opposed to the rules and regulations of the outside world, certainly had its own which had to be followed.

Campuses in the 1920s also experienced a shift in the relationship between the student body and the administration. There was often a struggle between the two groups, especially over issues such as dancing policies and the acceptance of smoking for women.[16] The draw of the student to breaking away from traditions frustrated college administrations, which had been used to a much more serious breed of students from during and before WWI. Interestingly though, the 1920s were also the time when administrations began to take the student body more seriously than ever before. It was during this decade that the position of Dean of student activities or non-academic life was first created.[17] In addition, student clubs and organizations gained official recognition by administrations.[18]

The extent to which Geneva College was typical of educational institutions in the 1920s differs from one aspect to another. Extracurricular activities were certainly just as prominent at Geneva as elsewhere, though the activities themselves were not all the same. Music was popular, as many students were members of various glee clubs and other musical groups. There were no fraternities or sororities; instead the YMCA and YWCA dominated the social scene at the college. Athletics were very possibly the leading activity, as they also were elsewhere during the 1920s.

The culture of Geneva’s campus during this decade also shares some similarities with that of American colleges in general. As in other schools, women were more able to participate in clubs and organizations throughout the decade, as can be seen through the growth of the Girls’ Glee Club, in both term of membership and prestige. The existence of events such as the Spring Festival at Geneva suggests that nativism was perhaps less of an issue there than in other schools, or at the very least, was discouraged. The Student Senate served as the mediator between the student body and the administration, allowing for a channel of communication should conflict between the two groups arise. Finally, the much debated dancing policy of today was the same in the 1920s, and at that point was no different from the stance taken by most American colleges.

Overall, Geneva College in the 1920s was not substantially different in terms of campus life from the average American college. Many of the same activities were enjoyed, though it is clear that the unique Christian essence of the school pervaded them to a great extent, making Geneva then, as now, a very special place.

Click on a subject to learn more about college life in the 1920s:

Campus Events


Dorm Life


[1] David O. Levine, The American College and the Culture of Aspiration, 1915-1940. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 68.

[2] Levine, 45.

[3] Levine, 14.

[4] Levine, 116.

[5] Levine, 119.

[6] Levine, 121.

[7] Robert Cooley Angell, The Campus: A Study of Contemporary Undergraduate Life in the American University. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 19280, 2.

[8] Angell, 4.

[9] Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987), 94.

[10] Horowitz, 96.

[11] Horowitz, 111.

[12] Levine, 121.

[13] Horowitz, 76-79.

[14] Horowitz, 123.

[15] Barbara A. Schreier, Fitting In: Four Generations of College Life (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991), 32.

[16] Schreier, 23.

[17] Horowitz, 111.

[18] Horowitz, 119.

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