Keep Going Ahead: The Case of Student Employment and Academic Success

Camila Quevedo Oppelt

 

The 1930s were historically significant to both the state of Texas and Baylor University. The state of Texas was commemorating its centennial anniversary and Baylor University was very much involved in the spirit of celebrations. Following the Great Depression and in the years between the World Wars, it seems relevant to address the social and economic impact in curriculum development and academic life in general.

In the midst of the national turmoil, educational institutions had to take these contexts into consideration and prepare students accordingly. A postsecondary institution is not immune to external factors (Peterkin, 2000), and therefore their influence on how administrators view students’ success is in terms of how a college or university can shape the curriculum to address what set of skills students will eventually need in their professional life.

Despite trouble with finances, it was clear that “the essential business of [Baylor was] scholarship” (Jones, 1936). Dean E. N. Jones, appointed Vice President of Baylor in 1936, was constantly concerned with Baylor students’ academic achievement and was responsible for keeping students focused, motivated to excel, and committed to their own studies, as he stated at a chapel meeting*:

Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection
Dean E. N. Jones
Photo Courtesy of Baylor Texas Collection
    “Do your task better than it has been done before.” “The fundamentals of human nature do not change.” “Whatever happens to you, don’t howl or complain.” “Keep going ahead, and don’t turn back.” In advice to students specializing, he added that we should not delve too much in one field, but take courses that will broaden and enlarge one’s life vision. (Bushey, 1935b)

The significance of Dean Jones’ work towards students’ achievement is evidenced in his many speeches—which will be addressed further—and eventually in the discovery of a correlation between student failure and student employment. Dean Jones’ interest in learning the details of students’ underachievement is shown in his pursuit of its probable causes. To understand more about the topic here addressed, it is important to understand more about the significance of Dean Jones in regards to students’ development at Baylor at the time.

The Great Motivator

Dean Jones was a recognized educator. Among his many positions, a few are worth mentioning: he was appointed the Dean of Baylor University and Head of the Department of Biology in 1935 (Neff, 1935), elected President of the Texas Association of Colleges in 1936 (Lariat, 1936), chairman and founder of the Texas Council of church-related colleges as of 1937 (Lariat, 1939) and assumed the position of chairman of the Baylor Curriculum Problems Committee in 1935 (Baylor Bulletin, 1935). He would be involved in recommending, interviewing and reporting on potential future faculty and staff, he would make numerous speeches in conferences and meetings around the country. In his concern toward a curriculum developed for the betterment of students and the university, Dean Jones, in a letter to President Neff in 1935, argued:

    It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Baylor could modify her freshman and sophomore work to incorporate the basic essentials that are being found good elsewhere. In addition, we could do some pioneering of our own. (Jones, 1935)

In this letter, he addresses the importance of establishing a general education program at Baylor. At the time, such programs were still in development with the support of the General Board of Education—including financial support.

Thus, his main focus was in how to provide students with enough knowledge and the best possible environment in order for students to eventually become better citizens. He made this point in several of his addresses in chapel—representing President Neff in his absences. According to the notes made by Galen Bushey, Dean Jones was interested in giving motivational speeches—often times straightforward warnings—on student’s perseverance and academic development. On the morning of October 22, 1935, his chapel speech made this particularly clear: “Those trying to improve, but have not yet succeeded, should keep on. … But those not trying had better look out!” And, as paraphrased by Bushey (1935a), he continued: “Do your best, make the most of your college life, but don’t have someone to put a crutch to your actions.”

As this speech reveals, Dean Jones was not afraid to be bold with his comments, taking a somewhat parental role, using phrases such as “better look out!” and not to let others “put a crutch to” the students’ actions. His use of declarative sentences also manifests his warnings in his push for students to take responsibility over their own learning and achievement.

On the Edge of Success and Failure

In the midst of curriculum reforms, of a fast growing number of student enrollment, and of the flourishing of intercollegiate sports—in fact, college life overall— American higher education institutions in the 1930s became the favorite theme of reporters, journalist, and even filmmakers (Thelin, 2011). In a nutshell, “depression or not, the years of the mid-Thirties were exciting ones for Texas” (Abernethy, 1992).

From the second half of the 1930s, Baylor, for instance, experienced an annual increase in educational expenses but also presented an even greater increase in student enrollment (Jones, 1938). Academic life at Baylor was booming, mirroring the national phenomenon. The increasingly larger student body rose even more the preoccupation with their academic achievement—which therefore demanded more attention.

Dean Jones realized student’s success was also dependent on administrative decisions. As Dean Jones pointed out, the minimum ratio of 20 students per faculty called for an attention to the admissions’ process. According to him, the best solution for both potential financial constrains as well as for the problem of a low student-faculty ratio (2000 students and 86 faculty members in the 1937-38 term) would be to maintain the student body number restricted to 2000-2100—“and a per capita expenditure of $150” (Jones, 1938). He perceived the interconnection between students’ academic success and the faculty-student ratio and noted that they “should pursue the policy of doing first class work with a smaller number [of students] rather than poorer work with a larger number [of students]” (Jones, 1938).

Such an interest in higher education raised the attention of presidents and department heads to how were students in terms of their academic life—more specifically regarding students’ GPA. One of the methods to keep track of students’ grades was through “failure slips.” Failure report cards were amongst the responsibilities of Dean Jones’ Department, a department that was concerned with the number of students showing academic deficiency. The report cards possibly triggered Dean Jones’ interest and acting upon his concern regarding student failure—as well as under the Southern Association advisement—, Dean Jones wrote to President Neff in the fall of 1940:

    At my request Miss Duggin, Assistant Registrar, has prepared a list of all students now in school who, having completed eighteen or more majors of credit, are short on the required graduation average. (p. 1)

According to his letter (1940, p. 1), the survey was requested “for the purpose of writing letters to the parents of the seniors whose graduation [that] year [was] in question,” but another matter surfaced with the results: students who were granted employment were the majority of the failing junior and senior students. Many were the subsidies granted to Baylor students and, according to the survey ordered by Dean Jones, the subsidies awarded to the listed at-risk students were: “(1) student employment, (2) ministerial benefits, (3) half tuition to children of ministers, and (4) work benefits to athletes” (Jones 1940, p. 1). Despite the ongoing—nationwide—economical concerns and also the persistently high dropout rates of the time (Thelin, 2011), Dean Jones was not exclusively focused on financial problems, but mostly on the students’ academic achievement:

    My interest has been aroused because of an increase, during the past three years in particular, of the instances of students and their families who face serious disappointment because of the students’ failure to graduate. (1940, p. 2)

Acting upon the survey finding, he came to an important conclusion:

    Members of the faculty, Registrar Allen, and I have felt that there is a downward trend in the scholarship of Baylor students. There are several contributing factors. It is my opinion, in the light of present evidence, that our reinstatement and student employment policies have been chief among them. (1940, p.2)

Addressing the correlation between student failure and student employment, Dean Jones concluded, the immediate course of action was to revise the student requirements to employment grants. In the following years, the awards would heavily rely on the students’ standardized test score and high school GPA.

Good Question!

In a 1939 editorial of the Lariat, a question is raised: “Does Baylor university prepare her students for the broader problem of living rather than making a living?” For an educator aware of his responsibility with “the success of the academic program of the University and for serving the best interests of the student body as a whole” (Jones, 1940b), Dean Jones would make significant decisions to fulfill his assigned responsibilities, including revising how and on what system were subsidies conferred to students—if a student would be considered by someone’s reference only, for instance. With the information that a considerable percentage of the students awarded employment subsidies were failing academically, he made a diplomatic choice:

    I heartily recommend the plan…of considering the high school average and other scholastic records in granting employment. It is much easier not to grant employment in the first place to students of low ability than to remove their names from the list after one or more terms. I feel definitely, however, that such removal should be done when students either cannot or will not demonstrate their ability to carry satisfactorily their courses and their student employment assignments. (Jones 1940, p. 3)

Dean Jones offered the solution to award employment on a merit basis, to aid “worthy students” (Jones 1938). Evidenced by a letter to all Department Heads in the summer of 1940, Dean Jones was already predicting an interconnection between student employment and academic failure. He, in such letter, instructed the heads of the University Departments that graduate students were to “largely replace undergraduates as graders and laboratory assistants” for the next school term which, according to him, “this new policy [would] markedly improve grader-student relationships” (Jones, 1940a). Even before that, on another letter to President Neff in June of 1938, he would have advised:

    I suggest that any student who is on warning or under special supervision, if given employment at all, be so benefited only after a thorough investigation which would reveal that his low grades have been to justifiable causes.

In a certain way, Dean Jones characterized the undergraduate student at the time in contrast to graduate students: he latter being more mature in terms of balancing their study with the work load. In his approach concerning the grant of employment to students on merit as of 1938, he demonstrates when he starting to acknowledge and notice there should be given a greater attention to the overall achievement of student employees—they were to be, and become, more responsible human beings.

Conclusions: A Man Ahead of His Time

Dean Jones was, as stated above, overtly concerned with the necessary reforms in providing the best environment for Baylor students as well as with urging students to become independent and take responsibility over their academic achievement. In a sequence of events, he acknowledged the need to motivate and warn students to improve academically. He then proposed changes to shape a curriculum that addressed the social economical reality of the time as well as a  preferred faculty-student ratio. He perceived a greater possible maturity in graduate students in comparison to undergraduates, and he finally realized a relationship between those underachieving undergraduate students and their employment grants.

Amongst his many administrative preoccupations, he would exhort “that the students organize their knowledge; that they corral what they know” (Bushey, 1936b) and, in his chapel speeches, he would take the opportunity to encourage, motivate, and push students to become their best selves.

Devoting himself to the students’ development and through years of enquiries, letter exchanges, discussions, conference meetings, and surveys, Dean Jones made informed decisions to meet the standards he so much coveted for Baylor. Having declared that “the responsibilities which, in the nature of our organization, follow-up on my office for the success of the academic program of the University and for serving the best interests of the student body as a whole” (Jones, 1940), Dean Jones decided on granting employment scholarships to those students who would have excelled in their high school years. Definitely a man ahead of his time, since this method is still used today.

Footnote:

*The chapel meetings notes are all written by Galen Bushey. Original quotes were maintained.

References

Abernethy, F. E. (1992). Texas Folklore Society: 1909-1943 (Vol. 1). University of North Texas Press.

Bailey, A. (Ed.). (1939 February 16). Church Schools Will Meet at Fort Worth. The Daily Lariat. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/lariat/id/20846/rec/2

Baylor University. (1935). Baylor University Bulletin.  Waco, TX: Baylor University.

Bushey, G. (1935a October 22). [Chapel Notes] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #107, Folder #07).The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Bushey, G. (1935b November 04).[Chapel Notes] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #107, Folder #07). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Bushey, G. (1936a October 15). [Chapel Notes] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #107, Folder #05). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Bushey, G. (1936b November 12). [Chapel Notes] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #107, Folder #05). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Jones, E.N. (1936 October 14). [Letter to Neff, P. M.] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #154, Folder #03). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Jones, E.N. (1940 October 14). [Letter to Neff, P. M.] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #147, Folder #09). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Jones, E.N. (1938 June 11). [Letter to Neff, P. M.] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #154, Folder #04). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Jones, E.N. (1940 July 02). [Letter to All Department Heads] The Patt Neff Collection (Box #154, Folder #05). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Peterkin, D. (2010). Within These Walls’: Reading and Writing Institutional Histories. In GASMAN, Marybeth (Ed.). The History of U.S. Higher Education: Methods for Understanding the Past. (9-18); Routledge.

Reaves, R. (Ed.). (1936 April 28). Dean Jones is Elected Association President. The Daily Lariat. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/lariat/id/35296/rec/1

Thelin, J. R. (2011). A history of American higher education. JHU Press.

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