Access to higher education in the 1930s was expanding, but not without obstacles. Due to the Great Depression, the national financial situation was grim, thus making college difficult to afford for the average family. Despite this obstacle, coeducation was becoming more commonplace and, according to Thelin (2011), by 1940 women made up about 40 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in America. Within the university, Baylor began designing and planning for a Student Union Building that would provide students a place to retreat on campus.
Baylor University and President Pat Neff worked within the financial constraints of the times and sought to provide access to students while avoiding debt. Neff often worked flexibly with prospective students to allow for a variety of payment types. In 1939, over 1,000 students at Baylor worked for part or all of their tuition. On a more unconventional note, Neff negotiated the exchange of land, farms, and even produce for tuition.
In addition to making the institution financially accessible to students, Baylor University was the second coeducational institution in the country providing access to women. Although women had the freedom of attending the university, they were far from having equal access to all that an education entails in comparison to their male counterparts. Inequality for women was exemplified most prominently in curriculum, means of financing their education, dormitories, and student organizations.
On campus, Baylor’s students were seeking a student union building. Although Baylor had multiple academic buildings and libraries, there was no social center for students to gather when they were not in class. While Baylor students living on campus could retreat to their residence halls, commuter students had no place to unwind, relax, or meet for extracurricular activities.
The Baylor Centennial Foundation took charge of the Student Union Building campaign, calling upon former students from all over the state to donate funds for a building that could be utilized by both current students and alumni. If enough funds were raised, the building would be showcased in time for Baylor’s Centennial Celebration. Not only would the building fill a need and benefit the entire university, it would continue Baylor’s mission of building a university that benefited students in all areas of life.
During the 1930s, Baylor University and Pat Neff worked hard to provide access to higher education. Unfortunately, access to campus did not come without prejudice. Work toward equality, especially in the classroom, was still necessary. On campus, students struggled to find a physical place of belonging and desired access to a building that suited for the needs of all college students. The planning of the Student Union Building symbolized the dedication of Baylor to meet the needs of her former, current, and future students. Some wanted access to Baylor, some wanted full access to Baylor, and some wanted access to better resources at Baylor.
Women’s Access to Education at Baylor University, 1931-1940 (by Jessica Roshak)
Access at Baylor 1931-1940: The Student Union Building Campaign (by Lauren Gray)