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A New Democracy in Education - NYA Program - 1938

Equal opportunity and democracy are inseparable aspirations. No aspect of equal opportunity has been sought more energetically by the American people than equal opportunity for education. We have long been committed to the principle that every child should, at public expense, be provided with, and compelled to receive, an elementary education.

Our high schools and tax-supported colleges and universities are the fruit of the conviction that every youth should have also the chance for such further education as his abilities justify.

The American dream of equal educational opportunity has never fully materialized—not even in the elementary schools. The gap between aspiration and fact has been the widest at the college level.

Even at the State institutions, laboratory fees, books, and incidentals are more costly than in the high schools, and most students must meet the additional expense of board and lodging away from home.

A bridge of scholarships and loan funds has carried a few promising but poor young people across the gap. A wider bridge has been built by the energetic and ambitious youths who have worked their way through college.

Entirely or partly self-supporting students have been respected members of undergraduate communities. They have not been unknown even at the high-tuition private colleges catering chiefly to the children of families in the upper-income brackets.

For a decade before the great depression the difficulty of working one's way through college had been increasing some- what. Between 1920 and 1930 college attendance more than doubled.

Many colleges are situated in small communities where the number of part-time jobs did not increase in proportion to the number of students seeking them. Nor, on the average, was there a decrease in the cost of a college education to the individual student. [Note 1]

With the advent of the depression, the number of students partly or entirely dependent on their own earning capacities sharply increased, and the number of jobs open to them sharply decreased. Most institutions made all the concessions that their own often dwindling resources permitted to promising students with little or no money.

Some of the State universities were able to provide living quarters in limited quantity at extremely low cost. Some university cafeterias sold balanced dinners to needy students at ten or twelve cents. Yet this scale of living was beyond the means of many youth.

At one State university, the authorities found that one young man had been trying to feed himself on fifty cents a week and that another was sleeping during a cold winter in an old automobile parked on the edge of the town.

Yet these ambitious young people hung on grimly. Many of them would have been no better off anywhere else. At the colleges they could suffer undernourishment in attractive surroundings; and in the classrooms and college libraries they could at least find warmth.

Thousands of other capable young people remained in idleness at home because they could not scrape together even enough money for incidental fees at the least expensive colleges.

In spite of all that was done, the enrollment in colleges and universities dropped about 10 percent between 1932 and 1934, and would have dropped further if the Federal Government had not begun to supply aid to needy students in February 1934.

If this drop had meant a weeding out of the least fit, perhaps it could have been considered as not undesirable. But it was not. It meant only the loss of some of those who lacked financial means and could not find the jobs with which to pay for their own education.

With the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps various educators began to suggest that a small amount of money be made available to help young people to go to college. Until the unused capacity of the colleges was filled, it obviously was less expensive to keep youths in college than to put them in CCC camps.

Indeed, there was no cheaper way to keep a large number of people of college age off the labor market and usefully occupied. And for those capable of benefiting from a higher education, this way probably held the greatest promise of gain for society as a whole.

These considerations led President Roosevelt to approve the use of enough Federal relief money to help approximately 75,000 young people to attend college during the second half of the college year 1933–34. With a slight expansion this aid was continued by FERA during the next college year and since then has been provided through NYA.

The principal terms of the college aid program have remained unchanged since the program was instituted in February 1934. In return for work, the Federal Government pays to a needy student a maximum of $20 a month during the college year.

The average of payments within any institution in Education 159 may not exceed $15 a month. Every bona fide non-profit-making and tax-exempt institution which requires a high school diploma or the equivalent as the minimum for entrance is eligible to participate. Each is given as a quota a percentage of its enrollment of regular students.

Unlike the work program for out-of-school youth, NYA college student aid has never been restricted to youth from relief families. The colleges and universities themselves select the students to be aided.

The Federal Government requires that these students possess the ability to do good scholastic work, that they be regular students carrying at least three-fourths of the normal academic schedule, and that they be unable to enter or remain in college without Federal assistance.

The institutions themselves also arrange and supervise the work which these youths do to earn their Federal wage checks. The pay is at the hourly rates for comparable work in the college or community. The chief Federal requirements are that this work be useful and that it be work not formerly done by regular employees or which could be done out of regular budgets.

Under NYA the college aid program has been expanded to include graduate students under the age of 25. The graduate students are permitted to earn a maximum of $40 a month each. For two years, graduate aid was segregated, and the graduate students assisted in any one institution were allowed to earn up to an average of $30 a month.

During 1937–38, graduate aid was lumped with college aid. While an individual graduate student may still earn up to $40 a month, the funds allotted to any institution are sufficient to permit average earnings for college and graduate students combined of only $15 a month. A small special fund has been created for Negro graduate students. [Note 2]

Approximately 98 percent of the eligible institutions, including junior colleges and normal schools, have participated in the student aid program. Most of the handful of exceptions are privately controlled colleges with limited enrollments and high tuition.

A few institutions in this class accepted Federal aid for a year or two but have now dropped it. Others continue to take advantage of it, but in many cases not to the full extent of their quotas.

Of the 1656 institutions approved for participation in the college aid program in 1937–38, 618 were publicly controlled, 303 were privately controlled non-sectarian, and 692 were sectarian, institutions.

Forty-three were unclassifiable. Of the youth aided, well over half were in the public institutions, one- fourth were in sectarian institutions, and one-fifth were in non-sectarian colleges.

Classified differently, the list of participating institutions consisted of 263 teachers' colleges or normal schools, 439 junior colleges, 911 universities, colleges, or technical schools, and 43 unclassifiable institutions.

During 1937–38, the quota of funds for each institution was based on 8 percent of its enrollment of resident undergraduate and graduate students under 25 years of age on October 1, 1936.

Some institutions preferred to spread the assistance among more students by reducing the average individual monthly earning below $15. The original quota base fixed by FERA was 10 per cent. of the enrollment.

During 1934–35, this was increased to 12 per cent. of the students enrolled in October 1934. The program reached its peak in the spring of 1937. Since then it has been contracted because of reduced funds. The following table shows the scope of the program during each of the last four college years [Note 3]:

College Aid










Students Aided





Average Monthly Earnings





Graduate Aid










Students Aided





Average Monthly Earnings





Total Number of Students Aided





For a limited number of students, NYA aid pays all, or substantially all, expenses during the college year. Before Federal aid was established, the University of Iowa had provided dormitory space in a field house, where loo students were sheltered for $1.00 a week each.

Subsequently this university assisted in the organization of 10 co-operative houses for a total of 300 young men and women. During 1935–36, these co-operative houses charged $15 a month for board and room, and at the end of the year were able to refund approximately one month's board to each participating student.

Several State institutions have assisted in making similar provision for a few students with little money. At the University of Idaho two years ago, more than 200 students paid for all their living expenses, fees, and necessary incidentals with $18 a month each.

NYA students who live at home while going to college, as many do in the cities, often are able to pay most or all of their fees and incidental expenses from NYA earnings. For the great majority, however, NYA earnings will pay only from 50 per cent. to as little as 10 per cent. of their expenses.

At the tax-supported institutions the NYA assistance usually meets from 25 to 60 per cent. of the total expenses of students who do not live at home. At the privately controlled colleges the percentage is lower. In some cases, NYA aid is used to supplement scholarships.

At the privately controlled institutions most scholarships are only rebates, in part or in whole, of tuition fees. Where scholarships exist at tax-supported institutions, they are usually only of small sums.

In the whole country, the number of scholarships that pay all the essential expenses of a college student is negligible. Without assistance from NYA or other sources, many students would be unable to avail themselves of scholarships.

In many cases, NYA aid is combined with money from home, or another job, or a scholarship, or all three. A brilliant Negro student at the University of Illinois won a small scholarship. He also found a job which gave him his meals. His father, a railroad laborer earning $90 a month, sent him $6 a month.

Yet, without aid from still another source, he would not have had enough to pay his expenses. The difference was made up by a NYA job as a laboratory assistant in the Department of Natural History. [Note 4]

A student at Vanderbilt University was able to pay for his education by the combination of a scholar- ship, summer work, $300 in loans from the student loan fund, and a NYA job. These illustrations could be multiplied many times.

In most institutions, NYA assistance is under the direction of the same officials who handle other student aid funds, including the parceling out of part-time jobs. In many cases the fitting and joining and penny-by-penny calculation which college personnel officials put into the allocation of aid to needy students would excite the admiration of an efficiency engineer.

Almost one-third of the students receiving NYA college aid are from families with annual incomes of $999 or less. Three-fourths are from families having annual incomes of $1999 or less. About 16 percent are from families whose incomes are $2000 or more, and for 8.2 percent, the size of the family income is unknown.

More than 55 percent are from families containing five or more persons, and more than 34 percent are from families of six or more. Three out of five are boys. Negroes and other racial minorities make up 5.8 percent. [Note 5]

By grade in college, NYA students are distributed as follows [Note 6]:

  • Freshman 29.0
  • Sophomore 28.8
  • Junior 20.4
  • Senior 17.0
  • Post-Graduate 2.9
  • Unknown 1.9

It is not literally true that every student who is receiving NYA aid could not enter or remain in college without NYA aid. In a great majority of cases, these students would be un- able to obtain a college education without work or other assistance of some kind.

Most students who must earn part or all of their expenses prefer NYA work to other work be. cause the hours of work are usually adjusted to their college schedules, and because the NYA jobs are more interesting or more valuable educationally or, in some instances, easier. If their applications for NYA aid are disapproved, they may fall back on other part-time jobs.

By the same token, the introduction of NYA work projects has freed many part-time jobs in the college or the community for other students. There are no jobs going begging around colleges. In a small but un- known percentage of cases, NYA aid may be given to students whose parents could afford to pay a larger share of their expenses.

In some instances, faculty members have pulled wires to obtain particular students for NYA research and depart- mental projects, possibly at the expense of needier students. Unless they live at home or receive substantial scholarships, NYA-aided students at private colleges in many cases probably could afford to attend State universities without NYA aid.

In some State universities there was criticism of the granting of NYA aid to students belonging to fraternities or sororities. Today in most institutions' students accepting the financial obligations which sororities and fraternities demand are automatically excluded from consideration for NYA aid.

At Ohio State University, 1,252 students on the NYA program were asked if they knew of any students receiving NYA assistance who did not really need it. Answering anonymously, 927, or 74.0 percent, said that they knew of no such students.

One hundred and fifty-five, or 12.4 percent, checked the word "doubtful." Eighty-three, or 6.6 per cent, gave no answer, and 7.0 percent answered in the affirmative.

Of these same students, almost two-thirds said that they themselves could not return to college the following year without NYA assistance, and almost one-third said their return would be doubtful. Only 54, or 4.3 per cent, said that they could re- turn or failed to answer the question. [ ]

There is no reason to doubt that, on the whole, NYA college and graduate aid has been going to students who need it. It may be questioned, however, whether NYA aid should be granted to high-tuition institutions except to supplement substantial scholarships, or to help students who, because they live at home, can attend these institutions at less expense than they can go elsewhere, or in the rare cases in which it may help a graduate student of unusual endowments to work with particular equipment or teachers.

End Notes

Note 1: Between 1921–22 and 1931–32 income from student fees at privately controlled institutions increased 115 percent, while income for current expenses from productive or endowment funds increased only 86 percent. In the publicly controlled institutions, income from student fees increased 104 percent, while income for current expenses from public sources increased only 63 percent. Office of Education: Statistics of Higher Education. Bulletin 1933, No. 2, pp. 2–3. Government Printing Office, Washington. Because of the increase in enrollment, these figures do not indicate an average increase in fees per student.

Note 2: $70,000 for 1937–38.

Note 3: The figures for number of students aided and their average monthly earnings are for April of each college year except 1937–38, in which January 1938 is the month used. The figures for 1934–35 are for college aid under FERA.

Note 4: This student has had a grade average of 4.8, 5.0 being the highest grade attainable.

Note 5: From a survey of all recipients of student aid made in December 1937.

Note 6: In December 1937.

Note 7: W. H. Cowley: A Study of NYA Projects at Ohio State University. P. 19. Mimeograph, National Youth Administration, 1937.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "A New Democracy in Education," in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 156-164.

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