In 1932, when Dr. Harry W. McPherson became president of a small, Methodist university in central Illinois, he was signing on to direct Illinois Wesleyan through a financial crisis. The university was $266,000 in debt. Faculty salaries had already been cut large percentages and were subsidized whenever possible, sometimes with scrips, documents that served as “I owe you's."
The financial crisis Illinois Wesleyan faced during the 1930s reflected that of universities all across the country during the Great Depression. One of the major issues facing students was the rising cost of college, which began to increase at the end of the first World War. By 1933, the average cost of tuition across the nation was $238 a year. At the same time, students' enrollments increased. In fact, there was a 20 percent increase in high school graduates attending college, spurred by the reality that a high school diploma alone could no longer guarantee a job. Although the rate of tuition increase slowed during the Great Depression, the rising numbers of students attending college did not. However, many students could not pay full tuition rates, leading universities to depend on private philanthropy to make up their deficits. Unfortunately, a mere 20 universities in the United States received 75 percent of all foundation grants, which left 25 percent for 310 universities as well as 700 schools with no philanthropic support. These factors combined to precipitate a nationwide decrease in college and university income. The decline especially hurt university staff, whose paychecks were lowered dramatically. The sudden increase in students who did not have the funds to pay for tuition contributed to the massive debt crises universities faced during the Great Depression.
The student body at Illinois Wesleyan typically came from rural backgrounds. 90 percent of its students lived in small northern or central Illinois towns. At the height of the Great Depression during 1932, Illinois Wesleyan had its lowest enrollments in years, despite seeing no drop in enrollment in 1929-31. While we are not certain why enrollment dropped that particular year, it may have had to do with a policy enacted in 1927 to seek out and accept students who could pay their tuition in full; too many students who could not pay would only increase Illinois Wesleyan’s debt. The enrollment increased in 1933 but did not return to its normal rate until the following year.
Illinois Wesleyan’s financial struggles were common to schools across Illinois. And despite the hardships Illinois Wesleyan faced, it fared better than others. Hedding College, for example, was a Methodist school in Abingdon, Illinois that shut down in 1927 due to its inability to pay debts. What remained of the university was eventually acquired by Illinois Wesleyan. Other private, Methodist-affiliated schools, including MacMurray College and the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois, also accumulated large amounts of debt in this period.
Farmers In Crisis
As universities struggled to pay the bills, Bloomington farmers also were trying to handle the Depression. The most common crops produced in central Illinois in the early 1930s were corn, wheat, and soybeans. Common livestock included cows, hogs, and sheep. In contrast to the Dust Bowl ravaging the southwest states, weather patterns were not unusual in Illinois during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the Depression did have a major impact on farming in Illinois. The value of crops and livestock declined, hitting its worst year in 1932. While the values eventually increased between 1933 and 1935 (depending on the crop), Illinois farmers shared the in the struggles felt all across the country when it came to the rapidly declining value of their produce.
It is not surprising, therefore, that colleges and universities sought to aid students from farming families. When McPherson decided to explore the crops for tuition program, farming in the Midwest was in the midst of a harsh economic battle. World War I had been good for farmers’ income—the United States government purchased large amounts of wheat and European production was halted— but the time after the war was devastating. By the stock market crash of 1929, farmers were producing such surpluses that market prices for wheat had already fallen by more than half. The decline quickened after the crash, falling in price from “$1.40 per bushel in July 1929 to 49 cents [in 1931] – a fall in value of about two-thirds in just two years."
With such steep losses, Midwestern farmers, like those in the communities surrounding Illinois Wesleyan, were in no position to afford the cost of higher education. Illinois Wesleyan’s program allowed farmers to pay for their children’s education while also disposing of their excess crops.
The President’s Plan
The crops program was not Illinois Wesleyan’s original solution to its debt crisis. At the 1927 Illinois Great River Conference, Illinois Wesleyan announced that it would be accepting more students who could pay tuition without extensive financial aid from the university. However, by 1929, this plan proved to be ineffective and Illinois Wesleyan’s debt only increased. While the reason for this rise is unclear, one could imagine that the decline of full-pay students hurt the university’s efforts.
Once the crops for tuition plan was implemented, however, the situation at Illinois Wesleyan turned around. In the year after the crops program was implemented and the newsreel released, Illinois Wesleyan’s debt finally showed signs of declining.
The unprecedented amount of press generated by the Paramount News newsreel “How’s Crops, Dean?” benefited the university’s financial situation. In an address to the board of trustees on January 17, 1933, after the release of “How’s Crops, Dean?,” McPherson boasted that the incoming class was larger than the year before. The school was growing, he assured, despite the “pressing bills, back pay, etc.” McPherson had a sinking university on his hands and, in his view, a large student body was the way to keep it afloat. In the same report, McPherson informed the board of the “worldwide” publicity that the university received for its “honest effort to enable farmer students to attend” Illinois Wesleyan and urged board members to keep Illinois Wesleyan in the public eye in order to encourage increased enrollment in the future.
Newsreels & Publicity
This publicity savvy McPherson is a far cry from the one presented in “How’s Crops, Dean?," who assured viewers that Illinois Wesleyan did not need students nor publicity. McPherson was not the only one, however, choosing his words wisely in the newsreel. The entire production was scripted.
According to the September 21, 1932 edition of The Argus, Illinois Wesleyan's student newspaper, Max Markman of Paramount News Corporation contacted Virgil Martin, the head of publicity at Illinois Wesleyan, hoping to make a newsreel about the university’s unusual crops for tuition program. The segment was filmed on registration day in September 1932, with Nate Crabtree taking on the role of stockbroker as real students brought farm products to trade for their tuition. After filming, Paramount sent a copy of the newsreel (presumably the source from which we are working) to Illinois Wesleyan’s publicity department.
The film we see when watching “How’s Crops, Dean?” was carefully crafted by Paramount News to be entertaining. Paramount News newsreels were featured in theaters across the United States and the main concern of theater managers was to keep their customers happy. Managers were reluctant to show any newsreels that diverged too far from the carefully cultivated atmosphere of escapism theaters worked to produce for their audiences. Paramount News told The Argus that “How’s Crops, Dean?” would be shown in 5,000 Publix theaters and have an estimated audience between 20 and 25 million.
Theater managers considered newsreels secondary to feature films in importance and value, but audiences enjoyed them as part of the motion picture experience. Audiences paid ticket prices for feature films but appreciated seeing newsreels as a type of padding in between the main events. “How’s Crops, Dean?” would have been packaged with other news stories, which The Argus describes as “views of Berlin, of Venice, and of a decisive baseball game featuring the New York Giants." For their part, newsreel editors approached the production of news as an extension of the movie industry. William P. Montague, an editor for Paramount News, described the balancing act of providing informative news while entertaining in The Public Opinion Quarterly; “Give as much real news as can really be interestingly told with motion pictures.”
Because of the lively press coverage the crops for tuition program and newsreel received, other universities across the United States began to follow Illinois Wesleyan’s example. Soon after the introduction of Illinois Wesleyan’s program, Louisiana State University and Weber College in Utah (now Weber State University) announced that they would accept farm produce for tuition. Crops for tuition programs would eventually become a trend across the Midwest, the South, and the West during the 1930s. Although the direct impact of “How’s Crops, Dean?” cannot be measured, the spread of crops for tuition programs seems to have been sparked by coverage of Illinois Wesleyan’s program and the newsreel itself.
The Value of Tuition
According to The Argus, the idea to accept crops for tuition was inspired by a similar program at Harvard University during the Colonial Era. In fact, it was quite common in the eighteenth century for students to pay university tuition using farm produce. Students were recorded paying with items ranging from grain and coffee to sheep and pewter. If a student chose to pay with money, their tuition would not cost much; Dartmouth charged $13 a year in 1779 and at Harvard, the cost was $20.
Over time, however, tuition became money only. Amounts of tuition also rose. By the time Illinois Wesleyan’s program came about in 1932, tuition costs were 650 times greater than they had been in 1860. Universities had to find ways to sustain their enrollments despite rising costs. One of the most successful attempts was made in 1825 by Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with its creation of the scholarship. The program was so popular that by 1848, one-fourth of the students at Dickinson had acquired enough scholarships that they did not have to pay the school tuition directly. The popularity of scholarships at Dickinson prompted other colleges to create their own scholarship packages. Students also made arrangements with the administration to work on campus in exchange for their tuition. Even one of the founders of Illinois Wesleyan, Reuben Andrus, worked in order to pay for his tuition.
Prior to Illinois Wesleyan’s program, some other universities did accept farm produce for tuition. In 1931, for example, a student at Morris-Harvey College in West Virginia paid for his tuition with a 2-year-old cow, 5 bushels of potatoes, and 30 bushels of apples. The crops used to pay his tuition were served as food for the students. Similarly, Illinois Wesleyan would either store their crops in a local grain elevator or use these crops to compensate their underpaid faculty. Also in 1931, at Beloit College in Wisconsin, a farmer made a deal to pay his child’s tuition with his farm products because he did not have any money at the time. After this, two more families arrived and also exchanged crops for their students’ tuitions. In both of these cases, however, these exchanges were only for a select number of students; Illinois Wesleyan was the first university to implement a program accessible to all its students.
By 1932 when “How’s Crops, Dean?” was filmed, it was rare for students to bargain their family’s crops for tuition. The awkward newsreel interactions highlight how irregular the transactions between the students and the administration must have felt. At the same time, the newsreel described the program in a way that made it recognizable as a scholarship program. By mixing these two elements, the newsreel was able to present the program as a return to the colonial bargaining system in the style of an early 20th-century scholarship program.
A deal like Illinois Wesleyan’s crops for tuition program, in which a farmer could use essentially unsellable surpluses to pay for a student’s education must have seemed like a dream come true. So why did the authors of this edition not find mention of the program again after 1933?
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) into federal law. The legislation’s purpose was to encourage farmers not to flood the market with products, thereby increasing demand and prices. To achieve this, the government subsidized fallow land and the production of in-demand crops. The AAA received mixed reception amongst farmers. While the AAA was supported by the American Farm Bureau, dozens of farm groups including the Farmers Union, the Farmers Holiday Association, and even the Department of Agriculture were against the act. While many of these organizations had initially supported Roosevelt during the 1932 election, they feared the AAA limited the individual liberties of farmers, giving the government control over crop production. Nevertheless, the act was a success for many farmers: “from 1932 to 1936, the price of a bushel of wheat almost tripled. And hogs, which had been selling at $3.34 per hundred pounds, rose to $9.37.” Because the AAA limited the ways in which farmers could use surplus, farmers were encouraged to only produce the bare amount to sell. And with that, the crops for tuition program faded quietly into the historical record of Illinois Wesleyan.
A Means to Survive
Illinois Wesleyan shared the same issues that most universities faced during the Great Depression when rising tuition costs and a growing number of students still did not make up for large deficits. The school implemented a crops for tuition program in what appears to be a direct response to that economic tension and Midwestern farmers’ harsh financial situation. Given economic pressure on both farmers and higher education at the time, Illinois Wesleyan’s crops for tuition program and the newsreel “How’s Crops, Dean?” offer important insight into how universities, particularly small private ones, strategized to survive in the difficult early years of the Great Depression.
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- Watson, The Illinois Wesleyan Story, 163. ↵
- Brubacher and Willis, Higher Education in Transition, 380. ↵
- Ibid., 381. ↵
- Snyder, 120 Years of American Education, 73. ↵
- Brubacher and Willis, Higher Education in Transition, 377-79. ↵
- Rudolph, The American College and University, 465-466. ↵
- “Catalogue of 1929,” 146-158; “Catalogue of 1930,” 143-155; “Catalogue of 1931,” 148-160. ↵
- “Catalogue of 1932,” 139-148. ↵
- “Catalogue of 1933,” 139-149; “Catalogue of 1934,” 141-153. ↵
- Watson, The Illinois Wesleyan Story, 159. ↵
- Journal and Year Book of the Illinois Annual Conference, 1933, 282-284. ↵
- Yung, Illinois Agricultural Statistics, 16-99; Pease, The Story of Illinois, 137-146. ↵
- Richardson, "Farm Policy," 322-24. ↵
- "Agricultural Markets and the Great Depression." ↵
- Journal and Year Book of the Illinois Annual Conference, 1927, 63. ↵
- Journal and Year Book of the Illinois Annual Conference, 1929, 321. ↵
- Journal and Year Book of the Illinois Annual Conference, 1933, 281. ↵
- McPherson, “Reports of the President-1933,” 3. ↵
- Ibid., 4-5. ↵
- According to the Illinois Wesleyan Alumni Bulletin, Paramount News first heard about the crops for tuition initiative through a newspaper article published in southern Illinois. ↵
- “Farm Products for Tuition Scoop for ‘Eyes and Ears of the World,'” The Argus. September 21, 1932. ↵
- Martin, “Wesleyan Secures Publicity Through Tuition Scheme," 1-2. ↵
- Hansen and Paul, "Newsreels," 72-74. ↵
- Smith, The Historian and Film, 56. ↵
- “Farm Products for Tuition Scoop for ‘Eyes and Ears of the World’,” The Argus, September 21, 1932. ↵
- Fielding, The American Newsreel, 221. ↵
- “Farm Products for Tuition Scoop for ‘Eyes and Ears of the World’,” The Argus, September 21, 1932. ↵
- Montague, “Public Opinion and the Newsreels,” 51.↵
- Bird, "Pigs and Cows Pay College Fees," magazine section. ↵
- “Wesleyan Accepts Farm Produce for Tuition!!!”, The Argus, September 9, 1932. ↵
- In our research it was unclear whether these numbers were adjusted for inflation or not. We have decided to keep them as is, but if they were not adjusted for inflation, then Dartmouth's tuition was $268.68 while Harvard's was $440.23. Hanes, Historical Statistics of the United States, Figure Cc-B.; Brubacher and Willis, Higher Education in Transition, 36. ↵
- Brubacher and Willis, Higher Education in Transition, 380. ↵
- Sack, "A Nineteenth-Century Scheme for Financing Higher-Education in Pennsylvania," 50. ↵
- Ibid., 51. ↵
- Record Group 14-2/2: Faculty publications file, Reuben Andrus, 2-4. ↵
- "Grins Between Grinds,” 214. ↵
- American Association of University Professors, “Academic Freedom and Tenure," 447. ↵
- Burwell, "Fridays with Fred: Tasty Tuition, Cabbages for Calculus." ↵
- Choate, Disputed Ground, passim. ↵
- Richardson, "Farm Policy," 322. ↵
- Choate, Disputed Ground, 20-21. ↵