American Colleges of the 1920s: Myth vs. Reality

Deborah R. Fillman, Colby College

Document Type Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Higher education in the United States is, and always has been, as unique as the nation itself. To begin with, colleges were founded not long after the first settlers arrived in the new world; therefore, the colleges established roots with a unique set of characteristics derived from the conditions of migration and settlement. The settlers had to contend with the wilderness, and the struggle for survival was an everyday concern for all. Such an environment was not considered conducive to a studious personality. Thus, these fledgling schools played only a minor role in the early development of the New World. By 1770, the total number of living alumni of American colleges was only 3,000, and the largest graduating class had only 63 members. 1 Yet if one takes into account the hardships of migration and settlement, it is less surprising that there were so few graduates of these new institutions than it is that there were any at all. The point is that such institutions did exist and managed not only to survive and eventually thrive, but to multiply as well, despite constant difficulties. The achievement of this high level of growth, which reached a peak during the period immediately following World War I, was dependent upon the needs and nature of American society; therefore, the shape of America at any given time in her history is in almost every case reflected in the history of the shape of her colleges. This is not to say that there are no recurring themes in the history of American higher education. On the contrary, certain themes (especially those concerning public opinions about the purpose of colleges) appear repeatedly, but they are also uniquely American and are equally as linked to trends in the history and development of America as a whole.