Higher Education

By: Jesse Cribbs

Throughout the history of the United States, the educational system has been in transition, and this was also true of the 1920’s. Author William Clyde DeVane cites historian Wilbur Cortez Abbott, “The way of life devised by the collegians of the twenties had little to do with the formal purpose of the college, but served admirably as preliminary training for the rough competitive world students would enter after graduation[1]”. So if the colleges across the country were changing from the beginning of the century into the twenties in regard to how higher education was perceived, in what other ways did the college system change?

Fredrick Rudolph, author of “The American College and University: A History” writes, “the continuous search for purpose and definition on the American campus led to a revival of collegiate values in the 1920’s[2]”. One can see a correlation between the revival of college values and the enrollment numbers across the country. In “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait” a statistical report published by the Department of Education; the author writes, “Enrollment growth accelerated in the first 30 years of the 20th century, driven by population growth and continuing rises in participation rates. Between 1899- 1900 and 1909-10, enrollment rose by 50 percent.” The report continues, “In the following decade, enrollment rose by 68 percent, and between 1919-1920 and 1929-30, enrollment rose by 84 percent. During these 30 years, the ratio of college students to 18 to 24 year olds rose from 2 to 7 per 100[3]”. The Department of Education report further states that in the 1921- 1922 school year there were 61,668 “degrees conferred by institutions of higher education,” of these 41,306 of the degrees were issued to men and 20, 362 were issued to women[4]”.

Geneva College was no exception to the national average, according to college records the enrollment numbers from January 1921 were more than doubled four years later in January of 1925; taking their enrollment numbers from 636 in 1921[5] to 1,326 in 1925[6] (this number does not reflect names that are repeated year to year), and by 1929 the numbers were at 1,621[7]. These statistics are taken from the Schools of Liberal Arts, Music, and Public Speaking.

The amount of participation was not the only thing to change within collegiate society. Many colleges were transitioning to a “modern curriculum that would recognize the new breadth of knowledge, but would at the same time achieve a satisfactory design and perform a function in the total educational plan[8]”. Nevertheless, what would these new designs look like? DeVane explains, “the new necessity was to bring order out of disorder: to construct a program of studies appropriate to the new age, rational in its direction and sequences, comprehensive enough in its scope to include the new learning, rigorous enough in its demands, and flexible enough to allow the gifted student to develop his full potential[9]”. The system that was developed opened the door for more natural and social science departments to be integrated into the colleges and universities, which in turned allowed for more freedom of choice for the student. Some of these changes created problems, however. DeVane writes that with all the changes to the curriculum, some classes were often unnecessary[10], and many departments took out “humanistic parts of the old curriculum, such as the study of Greek and ultimately of Latin[11]”.

Geneva, in many respects, followed the patterns of other colleges and universities, yet in others they challenged it. Geneva made a few additions to their departments, for example, the Department of Fine Arts was debuted in 1928. This department in particular was geared more towards women. The department offered classes such as costume design, interior decoration, clay modeling, and pottery[12]. According to Roger L. Geiger, this fit with the national average, he writes in his book “To Advance Knowledge”, during 1920 and the years following “… women took more degrees in teaching and, to a lesser extent, in home economics[13]”. So for Geneva to create a department that would mainly focus on degrees that women in this time period were pursuing is something of mention. In the same year, Geneva began its Health Department, possibly to better focus on a “new breadth of knowledge[14]”, as previously quoted by William DeVane. In addition, Geneva shifted the way classes were being taught in some of their departments. For example, the History Department made smaller changes in the last half of the 1920’s, splitting the History of Latin America, into two classes, and each section focused on a different time in the history of Latin America; ideally they were taken in order. The Renaissance and Reformation and the European History classes were dealt with in a similar fashion. Finally, while other colleges were eliminating their departments of Greek and Latin, Geneva College continued to keep their departments functioning into the 1930’s with little or no changes to the classes.

In conclusion, with all of the changes in the 1920’s concerning education, from the change in the number of students attending colleges and universities, to the changes being made to the academics, with the classes being offered to students. These examples are just a few ways in which Geneva College worked with and against the trends of the national average, set forth by larger schools across the country.


[1] DeVane, William Clyde. Higher Education in Twentieth Century America, Cambridge (Harvard University Press, 1965)58.

[2] Rudolph, Fredrick. The American College and University: A History, New York (Alfred A Knopf, 1962) 462.

[3] Snyder, Thomas D. 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, (U.S. Department of Education, 1993) 73.

[4] Snyder, Thomas D. 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, (U.S. Department of Education, 1993)91.

[5] Geneva College Course Catalog, 1927, 86

[6] Ibid, 134.

[7] Ibid, 143.

[8] DeVane, William Clyde. Higher Education in Twentieth Century America, Cambridge (Harvard University Press,  1965) 63.

[9] Ibid, 63.

[10] Ibid 64.

[11] Ibid 63.

[12] Geneva Course Catalog, 1928, 60.

[13] Geiger , Roger L. To Advance Knowledge, New York (Oxford University Press, 1986) 109-110.

[14] DeVane, William Clyde. Higher Education in Twentieth Century America, Cambridge (Harvard University Press, 1965) 63.

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