Caliber of NYA Students - 1938

Information as to the scholastic standing of NYA students was collected in 1935–36 from 270 colleges in 31 States.

One hundred and sixty-eight reported that, on the average, NYA students made higher grades than non-NYA students.

Seventy-one reported that there was no essential difference, on the average, in the grades of NYA and non-NYA students.

Thirty-one reported that, on the average, NYA students made lower grades than non-NYA students.

Thus, in less than 12 percent. of these institutions had the addition of NYA students lowered the scholastic average of the undergraduate body. As these reports were in average figures, it may be presumed that even in these institutions there were some NYA students of greater ability than many of the non-NYA students.

That NYA has helped many young people of superior ability to obtain college educations is strikingly indicated by more detailed data from several institutions. At the University of Illinois high scholastic standing is recognized by honor rolls for each class and by the special "Bronze Tablet" of seniors being graduated with high honors.

The following table shows the percentages of NYA students who qualified for these honors, compared with the percentages of other students:




Honor Roll

Bronze Tablet

Honor Roll

Bronze Tablet

NYA Students





Other Students





During 1935–36, the average grade of NYA students was 3.58, while that of all other students was 3.32 (5.0 being the highest grade attainable). [Note 1]

At Ohio State University, NYA youth were found to be "intellectually a superior group." In 1936–37, 40 per cent. of them were in the top 10 per cent. of the undergraduate body in intelligence rating.

The average intelligence percentile of the entire group was more than 76. All but 10.5 per cent. of these NYA youth were making grades above the average of students who graduate from Ohio State University. [Note 2]

Ten of the 18 seniors elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, in the spring of 1938 were or had been NYA students. Two of them already had been awarded scholarships in graduate institutions.

The scholarship average of all NYA students in this institution (approximately 300) was 2.83. The fraternity that won a scholarship cup had an average of 2.55, and the sorority that won a similar honor had an average of 2.58.

At the State College of Washington, during the first semester of 1937–38, 17.2 per cent. of NYA students made the all-college honor roll, which contained 12 per cent of all students enrolled in the college.

Of the NYA students attending the University of Minnesota during 1935–36, 35 per cent. had come from the top 10 per cent. of their high school graduating classes and 92 per cent. had come from the upper half. [Note 3]

A study of the freshman-year work of a large section of the class that entered the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1935 brought out significant data concerning the comparative scholastic achievements of various groups.

The following table shows the percentages of NYA students, other self-supporting students, dormitory students, and sorority and fraternity pledges who achieved honors and a C-average or better [Note 4]:  








Other Workers






Sorority and Fraternity



In addition to their NYA work, the NYA students carried a larger number of hours of classroom work, on the average, than did any of the other groups.

NYA has brought a college education within the reach not only of many superior students but of some whose abilities may properly be called exceptional.

In February 1938 institutions forming a cross-section of all those participating were asked: "Are there any instances . . . where NYA has enabled a student of exceptional ability in some line to attend your institution?"

Of the 52 institutions replying, 43 replied in the affirmative. Of the nine that gave negative or qualified answers, six are privately controlled institutions where the NYA aid can meet only a small part of the cost of attendance.

Of these six, however, five reported that while NYA aid is too small to enable students to enter, it is being used in many instances to supplement the scholarships or personal resources of students of high ability.

Fifty of these institutions sent in information concerning individual students who were receiving or had received NYA college aid. Here are a few examples of NYA-aided students of superior or exceptional ability [Note 5]:

James R—, 23 years of age, had neither parents nor other close relatives to help him. Ambitious to become a criminologist, he is now enrolled in the College of Law of the University of Illinois and works on a NYA project in the Sociology Department.

"It is known that he spent about the first two weeks of the semester (and before school started) sleeping in the park, in an empty house, and in one of the school buildings, with nothing to keep him warm except a dog which is his constant companion."

"We were finally able to locate a room job for this boy and with the aid of the NYA he has been able to pay his fees, buy his books, and pay incidental expenses.

"There is no doubt that he would not have been able even to start the semester if he had not had some assurance that he would receive the job which he held last year and upon which he is doing excellent work." His scholastic record for his university career is "about a 5.00 average" (5.00 being the highest grade attainable).

Kay Wilson was the winner of the national poultry judging contest at the Chicago Livestock Exposition, 1937, winner of the 4-H Club State oratorical contest, runner-up in the American Legion State oratorical contest, and an excellent high school student. His parents, farmers in the drought section, were unable to give him any financial help.

He worked in the harvest field during the summer months, without a shirt—so intent on saving his earnings in order to go to college that he would not spend the money for one. A NYA work-scholarship for the maximum of $20 a month enabled him to attend Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, where he has become an "outstanding leader."

More than 25 other boys and girls who had proved their merit as prize-winners in agricultural competitions of the 4-H Clubs and Future Farmers of America have been enabled to attend this college by NYA student aid. Among them is the State president of the Future Farmers of America, who had been forced to withdraw from the college by family financial reverses.

Betty B– was enabled to enter East Central Junior College, Decatur, Mississippi, by NYA aid. She worked as an accompanist for physical education and dancing classes and majored in music. At the end of two years she was awarded a scholarship to a State college. "They report to us that she is the best student of music ever to attend school there."

After one year in a CCC camp, Warren J–, from a very low-income family, entered this same junior college with NYA aid. He finished with honors and was immediately granted a scholarship at Millsaps College.

Ellen B–, valedictorian of her high school class, came from an extremely poor family. NYA aid enabled her to complete two years at this college. She finished with the highest honors.

A local civic club provided her with a scholarship to the State College for Women, where she is also finishing her education with the aid of a NYA job. "As a result she will be able to teach and help educate her very intelligent sister who is with us this year earning her entire expenses through the NYA."

Benito S- came to the United States in 1929, acquiring American citizenship by virtue of the fact that his father, who was already here, was a citizen. While working as a shoemaker in Trenton he gained a high school education in a night school.

He worked his way through Rutgers through NYA, work in a local shoe repair shop, waiting on tables, and other odd jobs. He completed his college course in three instead of the usual four years and was prominent in many undergraduate activities. His objective is a university professorship in Romance languages. "Truly a man of rare promise."

Henry H– is going through Rutgers with the aid of a State scholarship, an NYA job in the ceramics department, and money saved from his previous employment as a color matcher in a large chemical concern. "His experiments with a new ceramic green are likely to add much to the knowledge of ceramic colors."

Joseph P-, a Polish-American boy from Duluth, whose father earned about $80 a month, showed exceptional ability in mathematics in high school and junior college. Federal aid enabled him to continue his studies at the University of Minnesota.

On his own initiative he had read in the field of mathematics far beyond the level of the ordinary college graduate majoring in mathematics. He was assigned as an NYA research assistant to a professor of mathematics. His work was described as "astonishing." On graduation, he was awarded a fellowship at Princeton.

Leigh Gerdin was entirely dependent on his own earning capacity to obtain a college education. (His mother was a widow with a small income and two younger children in school.) At the age of 17, he entered the University of North Dakota.

For four years he paid all his expenses by working for board and room and for NYA. Carrying a scholastic load heavier than average, he made A grades (except for eight semester hours of B) throughout his college course.

In addition, he practiced on the piano two hours a day and composed several numbers which have been used by orchestras and choirs. In the spring of 1938 he was elected to a Rhodes Scholarship in competition with youth from six States.

After completing four years as a radio operator in the United States Navy, Homer B– wanted a more thorough technical education. Promised NYA aid, he entered the Georgia School of Technology.

He was soon transferred from NYA to the regular payroll of the institution as a part-time instructor. At Georgia "Tech," a barber's son, whose NYA job is enabling him to obtain technical training, is at the head of his class scholastically.

Andrew R—, one of ten children, came to Vanderbilt University five years ago on a football scholarship. His grades were so high that he was awarded an academic scholarship for the next three years. Lacking other resources, he had to earn additional money.

For three years he was helped by FERA and NYA college aid. This young man was so remarkable that he gave up his college football career to concentrate on a course "more nearly suited to his ideals for the future."

He was elected president of the senior class and "was in every way one of the school's most able and admirable students." On graduation, he was immediately employed by a bank in one of the larger Southern cities.

Twin brothers, both Phi Beta Kappa students, have been attending Duke University for three years. The university has given them considerable scholarship, loan, and employment aid.

But as they are almost entirely on their own, they need also their NYA jobs, which are in the college library. "In all probability, should they desire to take training and equip themselves to be professional librarians, their services would be in demand here."

Hiroto —, an American-born Japanese, was valedictorian of his high school class in a town in the Pacific Northwest. He was so well thought of by his schoolmates that he was elected president of the student body and editor of the high school paper.

The eldest of nine children, he was also the chief breadwinner of the family. With NYA assistance he is attending the State College of Washington, where he is making an excellent record.

Mabel J–'s father was on WPA. With NYA aid she was able to enter Butler University, in Indianapolis, her home city. She completed the requirements for the two-year teacher's certificate and, after a short trial, was assigned as a regular teacher in the city schools.

As a result of her earnings, the family is now off relief. "A talented young woman, gifted as a teacher, who would never have had her worth brought to light had it not been for NYA."

Mary H– was chosen for a $400 scholarship at Connecticut College. As her father could give her little help, she had to earn money to take advantage of the scholarship. She worked as a waitress in the college dining hall, made $200 last year as a correspondent for a metropolitan newspaper, and was employed on a NYA project, while carrying full-time academic work. Scholastically she stands at the head of her class.

Amy S-, valedictorian of her high school class of 175 students, is the daughter of a rug-cleaner who is irregularly employed. With the aid of scholarships and NYA she is attending Cornell University.

At the end of her junior year she ranked eighth in her class. In recommending her for a position one professor stated that he doubted whether any girl better in bacteriology than she could be found in the United States.

John W--, one of eight children in the family of a small farmer in the South, completed an agricultural course at his State college with an A average. NYA assistance enabled him to go to Cornell for graduate study.

Within four months the quality of his work had so impressed the Agronomy Department that he was appointed to an assistantship in soil technology and taken off the NYA rolls.

Another student, son of an artesian well driller with four children, was transferred from the NYA rolls to a teaching position six months after he had begun graduate work at Cornell. A third was promoted from NYA to an assistantship while still a senior.

Calvin B–'s outstanding high school record won for him two scholarship awards, totaling $350 a year, from the University of Vermont. As this university has a $300 annual tuition fee and his family could give him little help, he could not have accepted the scholarships if he had not been able to obtain NYA college aid for nearly the maximum amount.

He lives with a semi-co-operative group where he gets his board for $3.15 a week and room rent for 50 cents a week and is credited with $2.00 a week for janitor work. For three years he has made a high scholastic record in the Engineering College.

At the University of Vermont are several other students who have won scholarships but could not have accepted them without the opportunity to earn the rest of their expenses.

For many years before he entered college, Harold B– had been intensely interested in botany. His collection of fungus specimens included one which, so far as is known, had never been found before in the United States.

Lacking funds to attend college, he did post-graduate work in high school, exhausting all the material and books that were accessible. NYA aid enabled him to enter the Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, where he was assigned as a laboratory assistant in the department of botany.

Lloyd R— went through Kansas State College with Federal aid, making an exceptional record both academically and in campus activities. On graduation he was given a fellowship in the Department of Agronomy of the University of Wisconsin.

Nathan I– was assigned to a NYA out-of-school work project in Boston, in January 1936. Vocational tests showed that he had "very keen intelligence, extremely high mechanical ability, high finger dexterity and a fair ability to handle small tools."

One day he brought in some blueprints of his own mechanical inventions. The supervisor arranged for his assignment to a trial job in the physics laboratory of Northeastern University. He showed such ability that the University granted him a scholarship in its Engineering School, where he is regarded as a man of "great promise."

At the University of Maine, Vergil S-, a senior who worked for NYA for four years, was the highest-ranking man in the mechanical engineering group in 1937–38.

Walter M—, a junior in the College of Agriculture, on the NYA program for three years, has done work on insect life which "has attracted the attention of several outstanding authorities."

Mary F- entered Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1933 and made a brilliant record. Because of her father's illness she had to leave college to contribute to the family's support. After his death, she was able to return with the assistance of a NYA job, and "is finishing this year with one of the most outstanding records we have ever had."

George F-, son of a post office janitor with a large family, has worked his way through Lawrence College by summer work, NYA aid, and odd jobs. "A fine academic record" and "an unusually fine character."

At Tuskegee Institute every student who lives on the campus is required to work for at least one-half of his tuition. Only superior students are allowed to do enough work to pay for more than the cost of tuition. NYA jobs are used to supplement those regularly available.

Helen D— is the fourth of six children of a common laborer with a yearly income of approximately $450. When she finished high school, she was dependent on herself for further education. She developed a talent in making ceramics. Impressed by samples of her work, Tuskegee accepted her.

She and another Negro girl on NYA have been experimenting with native clays and quartzes in the Department of Ceramics. On graduation they hope to operate a pottery department in some school or to start a ceramic business for themselves.

At Tuskegee, the Agricultural Research and Experiment Station, headed by the celebrated Negro scientist, Dr. George W. Carver, is operated entirely on NYA funds for student labor.

To balance these examples of students of superior promise, we shall give thumbnail sketches of NYA students whom college officials consider "average" in ability:

Washington University, St. Louis: (A) Parents dead. No legal guardian.

She pays grandmother $4.00 a week for board, room, and laundry. While working learned stenography at business school. Saved enough to finish education, with NYA aid. (B) Father a streetcar motorman. Finished in upper third of his high school class. NYA aid for four years. Work with St. Louis office of Red Cross has interested him in social work.

University of Wyoming: (A) Orphan. Ward of State until 21. (B) Son of carpenter earning about $700 last year. Intelligence percentile rank of 85. Studying to be engineer.

Southern Methodist University: (A) Son of widow who is not self-supporting. "Creditable work" in Engineering School. (B) Daughter of widow. Studying to be a music teacher. (C) Father has five dependents and $1000 annual salary. Boy worked for 18 months in café to save money to enter college. Making good record.

Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland: (A) and (B) Daughters of minister with poor congregation. Family savings lost during depression. College gives scholarships and loans, which girls supplement by summer work, caring for children, and NYA jobs.

Average students, active in undergraduate and church affairs. (C) Given board and lodging by friend. No aid from home. Helped by scholarships and loans. Summer work, secretarial work for member of faculty, and NYA job provide money for rest of expenses. Academic work above average. An expert stenographer. Should be self-supporting when she graduates.

Montana School of Mines, Butte: (A) Parents failed on two-acre ranch about eight miles from Butte and are now on WPA. His $10 a month from NYA gives him daily transportation to and from college. (B) Father dead. Poor surroundings. On his own.

On NYA for two years. Good football player. (C) Eastern boy. On income of about $2000, parents trying to keep him in mining school and another son in Princeton. His ardent plea for assistance was rewarded with $10 a month NYA job when he made one of the two "straight A" records in the first semester of 1937–38.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: (A) From Middle West. One of family of eight with total income of $1620. No help from home. Because good student, receives entire tuition from scholarships or loan. Has job providing meals. NYA aid meets nearly all of remaining necessary expenses. (B) First year student, age 23, had saved $600 from previous earnings to meet $500 tuition fee and part of incidentals. Lives at home. NYA job makes up balance.

Fairmont State Teachers College, West Virginia: (A) From very large underprivileged family in mountainous interior county. He arrived with one outfit of clothing. "Will leave the institution in time with much better adjustments to life and its problems." (B) Italian-American boy from mining town. Football captain.

University of Kentucky: (A) Father an epileptic. Good record in the university. Graduated last June. Employed by a large oil company. (B) Reared on the streets. Citizens of town helped to send him here. For three years, NYA has been his main support. Scholarship record not high, but his improvement has been pronounced. (C) Fine boy but poor. Aided two years by NYA.

Last September entered Annapolis. (D) Son of man on direct relief. At end of first week had operation for appendicitis. With this handicap he has passed all his subjects with fair standing. (E) One of eight children. Family income low. Graduating from Law School this June. (F) Family impoverished by depression. Boy very ambitious and worthy. "One of our best NYA workers, making a fine record in every way."

The superior quality of NYA students in so many institutions is due in the first place to the opportunity for selection which college and university officials have. Every year from two to three times as many youths have applied for NYA college aid as could be appointed.

In some States the ratio of applicants to appointees has been almost four to one, and at a few individual institutions it has been even greater. The average of ability is pulled up still higher by the use of NYA aid by many institutions to supplement scholarships.

Some of the participating institutions attract a smaller number of promising youths. Some are extremely specialized; some are controlled by minor religious denominations; some are generally of low standard; some are high-tuition colleges with severely restricted enrollments.

Other institutions are able to assist a larger number of promising students out of their own funds or through jobs in the communities in which they are situated. At a few colleges the selection of students for NYA aid, as well as the organization of the work program, probably is in the hands of slipshod or narrow-visioned officials.

These various special factors probably account for the fact that in a minority of institutions NYA students, on the average, make a poorer academic record than the general run of students. In addition, individual officials and teachers in a few of the participating colleges are reported to regard NYA college aid as a kind of alms.

Although intended only for students who otherwise would be unable to attend college, NYA college aid is not charity, but a work program, and as such it apparently is regarded by most higher educational institutions in the country. Because of the high caliber of so many NYA students, these work-scholarships have come to be regarded widely as an honor.

The underlying reason that most institutions are able to choose superior youths, on the average, for NYA aid is, of course, the fact that the distribution of brains in the country bears no relation to the distribution of income.

That the American plutocracy has failed to develop into anything resembling an aristocracy of intelligence and culture is too well known to require argument.

It is doubtful whether the upper- and middle-class groups, as a whole, have succeeded much better in that direction, although their average is raised perhaps by the inclusion of the professional classes. [Note 6]

As a depression measure, NYA aid to college and graduate students probably would have been considered justified if it had kept off the labor market and usefully occupied at such small cost to the Federal Government youth capable of meeting minimum academic requirements.

To a degree that was probably anticipated by no one, it has made a higher education possible for many youths of decidedly superior abilities, whose future contributions to the nation may be of incalculable value.

It has made college training possible also for tens of thousands of youth, who, while they may lack unusual intellectual capacities, are of a character to become solid and useful citizens, able, as one educator expressed it, "to pull their full load in the world's work."

In the words of one distinguished educator, the NYA college aid program "has furnished experimental evidence far beyond that previously available that there are many young people having a high order of college ability who are unable to go to college for want of money." [Note 7]

"It has done not only a great material good, but it has actually contributed to the intellectual and spiritual values of the nation," Robert E. Rienow, Dean of Men at the University of Iowa, has written of the NYA college aid program.

"When the time comes that a boy or girl of great promise must feel that he is denied the opportunities of a college training because of his economic circumstances, our educational system has failed—and when that fails, democracy is destroyed." [Note 8]

End Notes

Note 1: Letter from H. B. Johnston, Secretary, University Student Relief Commit. tee, University of Illinois.

Note 2: W. H. Cowley, etc., supra.

Note 3: Alvin C. Eurich and James E. Wert: Applicants for Federal Aid at Minnesota Colleges. P. 36. University of Minnesota, 1937.

Note 4: J. B. Johnston, Dean of College of Science, Literature and the Arts, University of Minnesota. Faculty Letter, March 1, 1937. Mimeographed.

Note 5: The questions asked in this part of Mr. Taussig's questionnaire were: "Are there any instances . . . where NYA has enabled a student of exceptional ability in some line to attend your institution?

If you know of any such individual students, would you please give one or two brief case histories? In order to obtain a cross-section picture of the average NYA student, would you please submit three or four average NYA Student Aid case histories?"

Some responses interpreted "exceptional" more strictly than others. As a result, many of the "average" cases seemed to indicate greater ability than some of the cases marked "exceptional." The examples given here are drawn from both lists, primarily with a view to giving representation to various kinds of institutions in various parts of the country.

Excepting four or five extraordinary cases, we could have chosen from 50 to 100 others just as interesting and just as indicative of superior ability from examples sent in by these 50 institutions, representing only about 3 percent of all participating in the college aid program.

Quotation marks indicate matter taken verbatim from the responses of college officials. Where full names are printed, they are genuine. Otherwise fictional first names are used to indicate sex.

Note 6: Interesting data on this point come from a study of first-year scholarship at the University of Minnesota from 1931 to 1935. The students were classified in eleven groups according to the occupations of their fathers. At the top in scholarship stood the sons and daughters of clergymen and teachers and of other professional men.

They were followed by the children of businessmen, laborers, clerical workers, and artisans. In the first six groups, therefore, there were only two classes that are in the higher economic levels: professional and business. Following these six came the children of the financial, salesmen, and farmer groupings. The tenth and next-to-bottom group consisted of the children of streetcar conductors, janitors, policemen, and domestic servants.

These first ten groups were closely graduated, and some of them shifted up or down the scale according to the different methods used of rating scholastic achievement. Separated from these ten by a large gap on every measurement used was the eleventh group. It consisted of the children of owners and executives of factories. Dean J. B. Johnston, supra.

Note 7: Dean J. B. Johnston, supra.

Note 8: The Iowa Student Aid Program of the National Youth Administration. Mimeographed. Des Moines. May 1937.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "Caliber of NYA Students." in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 169-183.

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