School Aid - National Youth Administration - 1938

In the fall of 1935, NYA instituted a Nation-wide program of aid to needy school students 16 years of age or older. The main features of school aid were copied from the already tested college aid, but the maximum monthly payment to any individual student was fixed at $6.00.

It is supposed that the student lives at home. Federal money is intended to provide only for books, clothes, carfare, and other essential expenses of remaining in school.

Since the turn of the century, attendance at secondary schools has increased almost nine-fold. During the early years of the depression certain special influences tended to accelerate the rate of growth of high school enrollments. The supply of jobs was decreasing. Stay-in-school drives were initiated.

In 1933, NRA codes prohibiting the employment of youths under 16 at least temporarily barred many avenues of employment to younger workers. Between 1930 and 1932, high school enrollments for the country as a whole increased 17 percent.

Between 1932 and 1934 they increased another 10 per cent. Almost 6,000,000 boys and girls, approximately 62 percent of the population of high school age, are now attending public and private high schools. In 1937, the number of high school graduates in a single year passed the one-million mark for the first time.

Yet there remain hundreds of thousands of students of high school age who are neither working nor in school. Many of these dropped out of school only because they lacked a few dollars a year for shoes, clothes, books, street carfare, and necessary incidental expenses.

Supplying these few dollars obviously was the least expensive, and possibly the most useful, way of taking some of these young people off the labor market. At first an attempt was made to restrict this aid to youth from families on relief.

But it quickly became apparent that many youths in families just above the relief level were just as badly in need of a little help in remaining in high school. Aid has been restricted, however, to young people who have passed their sixteenth birthdays.

The program is open to all non-profitmaking and tax-exempt bona fide educational institutions that do not require a high school diploma or its equivalent for entrance. As in the colleges, the educational institutions themselves receive, and approve or reject, the applications for student aid and supervise or arrange the work projects.

During the first year, school aid funds were allocated on the basis of 7 per cent. of the youth relief population of each State. Since then the formula has been varied and flexible. For 1937–38, school aid was based on 10 percent. of the total 1936 enrollment, with supplementary amounts for areas or localities in greatest need.

As on the college aid program, many institutions spread these funds among more students by holding individual monthly payments below the maximums set by NYA. In some high schools in the South, the average individual monthly earning has been held to $2.00 or less.

In number of youths enrolled, school aid has been the largest division of the entire NYA program. Also it has been the cheapest division.

The following table gives the statistical highlights of the school aid program during the last three school years [Note 1]:





No. of institutions




No. of students aided




Average wage




Two-thirds of the students aided are in the junior and senior years of high school. A few are post-graduates. At the other extreme a few are youth of 16 or over who are still in grade school.

For December 1937, the distribution of NYA-aided students by grades was:

  • 7th or lower: 3,370
  • 8th: 6,334
  • 9th: 21,648
  • 10th: 42,421
  • 11th: 71,771
  • 12th: 75,524
  • Postgraduate: 1,659

A child who has entered the first grade at the age of six and who has advanced one full grade every year should be in the eleventh grade at the age of 16.

Two-thirds of the greatly retarded pupils shown in the eighth grade or lower in this table are in the Southern States. This area accounts also for a disproportionately large percentage of the ninth and tenth grade pupils receiving student aid.

Of these NYA-aided school students, almost three-fourths were from families having an annual income of $999 a year or less, and almost 40 per cent. were from families having an annual income of $499 or less.

More than half were from families of six or more members. More than half were from families that had been on relief at some time during the years 1933–37. [Note 2]

On the average, NYA school aid reaches a lower economic group than is reached by NYA college and graduate aid. This is readily understandable. Millions of families who cannot afford to send their children to college can afford the relatively small expense of keeping them in public high schools.

Usually the cost of high school education is beyond the means only of those who are chronically in the lowest-income groups, or who have modest incomes but exceptionally large families, or who have been struck by such disasters as floods, droughts, and economic depressions.

At the outset many educators and many NYA officials doubted the wisdom of making school aid a work program. The payments to be made were so small that only a few hours' work a month could be demanded of any individual student.

There was considerable skepticism as to the willingness or ability of many high schools to develop suitable work projects. Many responsible persons felt that it would be better for the morale of the students themselves to make outright cash grants rather than to risk giving them false ideas of proper work standards through a poor program.

At a few schools, NYA aid was temporarily given in the form of outright cash payments. Undoubtedly many high schools were slow in devising suitable work programs, and some may not have done so yet.

But NYA State directors and their assistants have given much time to inspecting school aid work programs and to co-operating with high school administrators and teachers in improving them.

As on the college aid program, the aim is to devise work that is educationally valuable to the youth who perform it in addition to being useful to the school or community.

In the country as a whole, the average hourly wage paid on school aid work projects is 24 cents (1936–37). Within wide range of hourly wages and monthly payments, 20 hours' work a month or five hours a week may be considered the norm for the amount of work expected from a NYA-aided student.

Many NYA high school students, thousands in the country as a whole, are assisting teachers in sorting and grading papers, and in coaching backward pupils. Some are giving clerical assistance in school offices.

Some have been made into school librarians. Squeezed between restricted budgets and still-increasing enrollments, many high school teachers and administrators have found this sort of assistance of immense value.

Thousands of NYA high school students are engaged in beautifying school grounds and developing school playgrounds and athletic fields. Some are making furniture and classroom equipment. Some are doing minor repairs to buildings.

Many girls are assisting in school cafeterias. A few students are assisting in research and statistical work, although this type of activity is, of course, much less extensive than at the college level.

Some are assigned as helpers to local public agencies. Many are doing such simple menial tasks as sweeping out schoolrooms and halls every day—for many smaller high schools have little or no money for janitor service.

Work projects picked at random from reports on the NYA high school program in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan include these:

One school bought an old railroad box-car; NYA students moved it to the athletic field and fixed it up as a field house, with dressing rooms and showers; they also made and installed storm windows on an old grade-school building.

Music racks built for the entire high school orchestra. Basement built under the agriculture shop. Composition board installed on ceiling of the auditorium to improve the acoustics. School doctor assisted by the keeping of clinical records for all students. School busses cleaned, oiled, washed, and checked every Saturday.

School grounds graded and planted with trees and shrubbery. School paper published. Library books repaired and rebound. School towels and domestic science linen laundered. Bookcases and bicycle racks built. NYA students in advanced class assisted slow freshmen.

School lunchrooms organized for the first time, many students bringing vegetables, butter, milk, and eggs from their farm homes in exchange for warm lunch prepared and served by NYA girls. School stage rebuilt, scenery repainted, and new drapes and curtains hung.

Thousands engaged in checking attendance, grading papers, filing papers, mimeographing, and otherwise relieving teachers of harassing details, with the result, one school principal said, that many teachers were able to work out new sets of notes for the first time in fifteen years.

Skating rinks, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and outdoor basketball courts built (by the score). Demonstration materials prepared for home economics laboratories and various science classes. School desks refinished. Play equipment made for public nursery schools. Flower beds planted and tended on school grounds.

These illustrations can do little more than suggest the scope of the work done by NYA-aided high school students.

In Tennessee, principals in smaller high schools favor the extension of janitor services and clerical assistance as work for their NYA students. Principals in the larger high schools give a high rating to instructional work. Campus beautification work ranks high in schools of all sizes, and repairs to buildings and equipment rank only a little lower.

The principals of 304 high schools were asked whether as taxpayers and citizens they felt that the NYA student aid plan was justified. Answers of "yes," usually emphatically expressed, came from 292. Three answered "no." The other nine gave various qualified answers from "to a limited extent" to "I doubt it. [Note 3]

Although it is reasonable to suppose that the work projects for NYA-aided high school students are not uniformly of a high standard, such evidence as is available indicates that as a rule these students are faithfully performing useful work.

For many students, these few hours of work each week are the first job. In those States where more or less comprehensive surveys have been made, many high school principals have spoken or written with evident pride of the sense of responsibility shown by most of their NYA-aided pupils.

Some of these young people are receiving experience of vocational value. In some cases the records for ability and diligence they have made on these small part-times have helped them in finding private employment.

The benefits of the high school work program are not limited to the NYA students. They spread out in concentric circles. In most high schools by far the major part of the work done results in benefits to all students. Some of it adds to the enduring physical assets of the schools.

Some of it is of direct value to other groups in the community. In some cases, the NYA student manages to save enough from his small earnings to buy some food or clothing for other members of his family.

Often, we were told by high school principals, NYA aid to one youth keeps another child in school—because the NYA student buys a pair of shoes for a younger brother or sister.

Some high school principals have reported that work done by NYA students has set a stimulating example to other students, with the result that some of the latter ask for the privilege of assisting teachers or of helping without pay on other projects.

Some report instances in which NYA students have set about improving their home surroundings after learning how to plant and care for shrubs, trees, and flowers on campus-improvement projects.

In 1936 and early 1937, when the country was enjoying a moderate degree of economic improvement and the Federal Government was spending more generously on other forms of relief, NYA funds for aid to high school students were sufficient to take care of 75 per cent. of the applicants.

Owing to economic recession and the curtailment of NYA funds for high school aid, only about 55 per cent. of those applying in the school year 1937–38 could be chosen. And the average amount of aid per individual diminished somewhat, because many schools spread the money extremely thin in the effort to help as many worthy but needy students as possible.

Such information as is available indicates that, in the country as a whole, NYA-aided high school students measure up to the average of all high school students in their scholastic work.

Of 397 high schools which were taken as a sample in 1936–37, 169 rated the NYA students higher than other students in classroom work, 139 rated them lower, and 89 reported that there was no substantial difference.

Most of these NYA-aided high school students have unusually underprivileged backgrounds. Many have come from extremely poor common schools. Some are returning to school for a second trial after dropping out, perhaps as much from lack of interest as from poverty.

Considering all these factors, the scholastic showing indicated by this small sample is surprisingly high. Included in the averages undoubtedly are many youths of superior promise.

NYA school aid has enabled many tens of thousands of youth to take advantage of the schools built and maintained at considerable expense by local taxpayers. As with college aid, it has not only kept youth off the labor market but has helped to prepare them to become more useful citizens.

A general education, or a combination of that with vocational training, in the secondary schools is coming to be regarded as the common right of every normal youth and as a basic national requirement. Already in some States more than 80 percent of all youth of high school age are enrolled in high school—in Utah more than 95 percent.

But in such States as Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, barely one-third of youth of high school age are in high school. In many other States there are areas and occupational groups with such low incomes that even in "normal" times education at the secondary level would be beyond the reach of many youth.

Indeed, many areas cannot afford to sustain even good common schools. NYA aid to high school students cannot, in itself, correct these inequalities. Yet for many economically handicapped young people, NYA aid has held open, and perhaps opened a degree wider, the door to equal educational opportunity.

End Notes

Note 1: The 1935–36 and 1936–37 figures are for April, the peak month of each of these years. For 1937–38, February 1938 is the month used.

Note 2: Based on survey of all youth receiving student aid in December 1937.

Note 3: Gordon H. Turner: Part Time Jobs for NYA Students in Tennessee High Schools. Pp. 5–6. NYA Mimeograph, Nashville, Tenn., 1936.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "School Aid." A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 184-191.

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