Student Success in the 1950s

Student Success in the 1950s

By: Deanna Calder


Higher education institutions varied greatly in their level of academic freedom, understanding of student development and acceptance of changing curriculum throughout the 1950s.  Leading up to the Second World War, many colleges were immersed in military work and preparation.  The nation was preparing for war, and regardless of personal preference, students were immersed in a university experience that was very rule-driven and regimented.

Faculty and administration at colleges and universities sought to minimize student acts of irrationality and outburst during the post-war era.  Ironically, the early 1950s American college student was generally found to be part of a rather moral crowd, with a simple focus on attending college and receiving a degree that would place he or she in a long-term job.  While moral behavior and desire for a steady career was the societal norm for college students, universities had their own individual way of encouraging student success (Thelin, 2011).  As colleges and universities became more aware of the unique needs of the individual student, a focus on student personnel services continued to be a critical part of the Baylor administration.

The development of the student affairs movement brought life to the university past the point of vocation, and set a new standard for the college experience of students.  In the midst of this movement, colleges and universities had to be prepared to combat any “early warning signal that students – or at least some students – sought relief from the predictable, festering problems of undergraduate education” (Thelin, 2011, p.  308).  Baylor, like many other institutions, was in the process of evaluating and developing student success initiatives that would be relevant and conducive to the accomplishment of the university as a whole.

The origins of the student personnel movement (later, student affairs) occurred as a response to the individual developmental needs of students across different types of higher-education institutions.  The vision for the student affairs movement outlined in The Student Personnel Point of View encouraged colleges and universities to focus on the vocational preparation of first-year students, while also “orienting the student to his educational environment” (American Council on Education, 1937, p. 3).  Orientation, as described by early student personnel workers, included placement testing and the encouragement of social development (American Council on Education, 1937).  Baylor University used freshmen orientation as a tool for encouraging student development, involvement and student success.

Baylor University administrators were tasked with developing orientation programs and processes in the midst of growing enrollment, increased progressivism, and a broadening curriculum.  Faculty and staff attitudes differed with reference to the incoming first-year students, but many voiced the concern that “the number of college students who return home after failing to cope with even the initial stages of higher education is far too large,” (The Daily Lariat, 1960, October 6, p. 3). In response, Baylor developed unique university experiences, which incorporated the expansion of the co-curriculum.

This paper will analyze Baylor University’s approach to fostering student success in the 1950s.  Baylor University allocated resources to the testing and orientation of first-year students, the development of freshmen-specific curriculum and the career and professional development of upper-classmen. The expansion of the curriculum and co-curriculum was a reflection of Baylor’s commitment to student success.

W. R. White and Baylor University

William R. White was President of Baylor University from 1948-1961.  During his presidency, White focused on modernizing Baylor University’s curriculum and scope of knowledge to the demands of the era.  Enrollment growth, co-education, mobilization and spiritual development of students all contributed to White’s legacy.  Specifically, White wished to “seek to train those who will become diplomats, business and professional men with the right attitudes,” (Baker, 1987, p. 223).  His mission to mold Baylor students into young, Christian men of integrity started with the spiritual development of the incoming students.  This view is further evidenced in White’s commitment to student support systems, chapel requirements and the expansion of faculty-student interaction.

In a personal paper written following his presidency, W. R.  White reflected on the current state of America in the midst of a communist threat and stated:

there is a wide revolt against authority all over the world.  It is more obvious and noisy in democracies where freedom is greater.  Some of this revolt is logical and sane.  Much of it is illogical, irresponsible and insane particularly in free nations” (The Revolt Against Authority, 1969, p. 1).

White also commented on the how the “loss of respect for authority in the [American] home is reflected in public life.  Continued permissiveness in society and government inspires and fosters anarchy” (The Revolt Against Authority, 1969, p. 2).  As the president of Baylor, White was looked to as a mouthpiece for what Baylor was trying to communicate to the world and to its students.  White’s personal views of students as citizens in need of personalized care and order had significant impact on his policies and the development of student programs.

The Counseling Center and Freshmen Orientation

The development of counseling centers was an attempt by some institutions to centralize orientation, student success, and student testing on a college campus.  In 1952, President W. R.  White announced the creation of a counseling center designed to be a resource for students during their college careers.  Soon after its opening, the Counseling Center announced that all “students [would] be assigned a faculty advisor who [would] help the in selection of courses and his orientation with college-life,” (Baylor Press Release, 1952, September, p. 1).  The dedication of university resources to a counseling center was in alignment with Baylor’s commitment to a stronger student personnel initiative.

Formal freshmen orientation in the early 1950s took place days before classes began.  This orientation session was logistical in nature and insured that incoming students would be financially settled and aware of campus rules prior to beginning classes.  In addition to all-university-rules sessions, Baylor also implemented a rigorous testing aspect to freshmen orientation (Baylor University Bulletin, 1952, p.  12).  Several tests, including aptitude and intelligence were administered to all first-year students.  These tests were used to determine the appropriate level of instruction needed for core university classes, such as English and Mathematics.  The process of aptitude testing and placement legitimized the orientation process in the eyes of the Baylor administration, but lacked in the social and environmental introduction incoming students wanted (The Daily Lariat, 1950, September 12).

By 1954, faculty advisors continued to be paired with first year students, but were more strategically paired with students within similar academic disciplines.  In prior years, partnership between faculty and students was much more random, and was a decision of convenience, rather than a strategic orientation initiative (Baylor Press Release, 1954, September).  An intentional shift from administrative convenience to administrational mentorship was one way in which the faculty and administration were trying to help freshmen through the college experience.

Freshmen Orientation became more important and more logistically complex as enrollment increased in the 1950s.  Larger class sizes, as well as a commitment towards student success initiatives, led to the development of a new orientation program in 1959 (The Daily Lariat, 1959, July 17).  The new orientation program involved the testing and registration aspects of previous years, but had an additional focus on introducing students to Baylor’s campus, traditions and culture during the summer months.  A typical weekend orientation session in 1959 was described in The Daily Lariat:

Friday evening activities include the meeting of parents with members of the administration for a question-answer session, reception for students and parents in the North Lounge of the Student Union, a tour of campus, a movie in the Drawing Room of the Student Union and a watermelon feed in the Union Bowl.  (The Daily Lariat, 1959, July 17)

The added component of a more holistic orientation experience was evidence of the administration’s focus on facilitating a successful transition for entering students.

Effective Living Degree Requirement

A goal of the Baylor administration was to encourage student success from the very beginning of a student’s college experience.  Therefore, a freshmen seminar class was implemented in 1952 with the goal of familiarizing students with best practices in social situations and wellness.  The addition of the “Effective Living” course requirement for all freshmen within the College of Arts and Sciences (Baylor University Bulletin, 1952, p.  12) was a significant step towards a more intentional freshmen success initiative.

The Baylor Bulletin, a course catalog, was the freshman’s first look into their college career path.  Students would regularly read and study the course catalogs prior to stepping on Baylor’s campus in order to have a better idea of the possibilities of his or her future.  In response to the student affairs movement, Baylor regularly updated the descriptions of courses and requirement information for students.  The 1952 Baylor Bulletin featured a new explanation of an “effective living” degree requirement for the College of Arts and Sciences.  The new requirements stipulated “supplementing the counseling program, an orientation course is designed to cover areas of health, social adjustment, ethics, and personality development” (Baylor Bulletin, 1952, p. 12).

The development of the Effective Living course dedicated to student’s health and adjustment coincides with the student affairs movement of the era.  This course was used as an extension of freshmen orientation.  Seemingly, the Effective Living course acted as an extension of formal freshman orientation, but also had curriculum dedicated to social integration and social success of students.

Baylor was interested in developing a “right attitude” within its student body (Baker, 1987, p. 223).  Students were expected to act honorably, with little regard for foolishness or rebellion.  Administrators crafted curricula and programs to limit uncertainty for new students in the hopes that it would drive student success and persistence.  Student success was continually driven by mentorship efforts, course creations and university support systems, including the Baylor University Placement Center.

The Placement Center

While a majority of student success initiatives during this time were focused on driving freshmen persistence, Baylor administrators did not ignore the importance of preparing upper-classmen for vocational success after graduation.  The Placement Center was founded in 1951 when Arch Hunt, a business professor, “noticed the need for a central placement office on the Baylor campus.  He presented his idea to the administration and was named director” (The Daily Lariat, 1961, March 15, p. 2).  Hunt was well-liked and recognized as a resource to Baylor students looking to gain professional experience or designate a career path.

By the end of the 1950s, the Placement Center was responsible for student aid, career placement, campus employment, university scholarships and student loans (The Daily Lariat, 1961, March 15).  Vocational initiatives for upper-classmen represented a well-rounded administrative approach to a student success journey that started with initial aptitude and ability tests at the beginning of a college career.  In 1955, Hunt authored a thought-piece in The Daily Lariat that encouraged student involvement, experience and academic scholarship.  Within his article, Hunt argued “the success of the [Student Placement Center] is . . . a witness of what the University has done academically, socially, and spiritually for her students” (The Daily Lariat, 1955, January 25, p.  2).  Students were better prepared and more likely to succeed when they interacted within the success system the Baylor administration had crafted.

Baylor Chapel

One way in which the Baylor administration tried to address the question of how students and graduates were to behave was the designation of university chapel services.  Chapel was a requirement of all first-year students entering Baylor University in the 1950s.  In 1948, Baylor added legitimacy to the importance of the chapel program by creating the University Chaplain position.  The University Chaplain, W. J.  Wimpee, was previously the director of Religious Activities at Baylor.  As he transitioned into his new role as University Chaplain, Wimpee became responsible for the curriculum and development of daily chapel services attended by freshmen and sophomores (Baylor Press Release, 1948, June).

Chapel’s programming and loose curriculum during this era was designed by a chapel committee under the leadership of W. J.  Wimpee.  This committee was responsible for finding and vetting speakers to bring to campus that would communicate spiritual and moral lessons to the student body.  The requirement of Chapel for students indicates that Baylor felt that there was a connection between spiritual wellness and student success.  In response to occasional attendance issues and negative student feedback, the chapel committee determined that a shift in curriculum would benefit the student experience (The Daily Lariat, 1960, October 28).

The resulting programming changes in Chapel were done in the hopes that it would give chapel “meaningful continuity that [would] motivate anticipation rather than dread,” (The Daily Lariat, 1960, October 28). The chapel committee considered the elimination of announcements, university business, and irrelevant speakers from regularly-scheduled Chapel sessions.  Instead, the focus of Chapel would be reflective of Baylor’s notion that the young men and women of America should be educated Christ-followers (The Daily Lariat,1960, October 28).

The consideration and deliberation of the chapel committee came to fruition in 1961 under the advisement of the new University Chaplain, Bob Dyal.  The council ultimately decided to revise the content and purpose of the chapel program for first and second-year students:

The revision [included] the separation of promotion things from chapel programs by designating an occasional chapel period as an assembly in distinction from the regular chapel service.  The council also decided that announcements should be prohibited in chapel and kept to a minimum in assembly.  The purpose of these actions is to enable chapel speakers to use the full time allotted them and to establish a more worshipful atmosphere in chapel.  (The Daily Lariat, 1961, September 27, p. 1)

Expansion of the Curriculum

The 1950s at Baylor were marked by enrollment increases and the addition of numerous degree paths.  These increases, along with other external factors, put pressure on Baylor to remain true to their mission, while also implementing structural change.  In other words, Baylor had to adapt to an increasingly diverse world of academia, while also maintaining its values and mission.  Garcia and Ratcliff (1997) state “college and university curricula are swayed by changing student interests and by demands for specific courses and programs of study” (p. 130).   Baylor’s expansion of certain degree programs, academic programming, and extra-curricular involvement reflect a genuine attempt to provide a relevant global education to its students, while also advocating for their success.

Garcia and Ratcliff also clarify that “students select courses and shape curricula through their enrollment and attendance patterns,” (Garcia & Ratcliff, 1997, p. 131).  Because Baylor freshmen attendance at Chapel was mandatory, Baylor had to rely on the feedback of students to predict when the curriculum needed to change.  For example, students often provided feedback in the form of letters to the editor of The Daily Lariat arguing that chapel was an important and intentional time for students to grow in their faith (1955, October 18, p.  2).  Chapel curriculum revisions, orientation program growth, and vocational preparation were reactions to a growing student need.


Baylor students desired institutional support systems, such as orientation, freshman seminars, and mentorship that would enable them to be more successful and confident in their own abilities.  In response to the development of additional student services and orientation curriculum, anonymous members of the Freshman class in 1957 wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Lariat describing the ideal Baylor orientation and purpose:

Baylor’s students shall be selected without regard to race, creed, or color, but rather on a basis of ability and willingness to undertake college level studies.  The curriculum shall be flexible and shall be determined by the student and his advisor who will undertake to guide the student toward the most profitable scholastic program in light of the student’s background, interest and abilities.   (The Daily Lariat, 1957, October 10, p.  2)

In many ways, this response indicates congruence between the direction of the Baylor administration and the needs of students.  Students wanted to enjoy college life, while also experiencing the support necessary to be academically and personally successful.  As students were beginning to demand a more holistic experience, the student affairs movement reinforced the development and maintenance of counseling centers, orientation, and social integration programs that would promote a more personalized college experience.  The expanded curriculum, focus on academic excellence, and administrative-mentorship opened the door for a more progressive administrative response in the 1960s.





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