College Admissions, Student Diversity, and Campus Culture 50 Years Ago

Getting in was much easier, and it certainly was cheaper, but racial and gender imbalance was rampant.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on March 14, 2024
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  • A book published in 1971 offers a fascinating look at college life half a century ago.
  • Campuses were embroiled in social protest resulting from the Vietnam War.
  • Admissions standards were much lower, as were relative costs.
  • Women and minority students were underrepresented, and some colleges had just gone coed.

Hey, cats and chicks, hitch a ride on my Tardis and join me on a psychedelic trip to 1971 for a tour of college campuses across America. We'll see how gnarly the admissions scene was, man, how much bread you needed for tuition, and how diverse colleges were back then.

Leading our tour is a little-known book called "The Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice," written by Susan Berman (cost: $1.50). "This is a book from the hip to the hip," its cover blurb promises. "Use it well. And Peace."

For today's students, it's an opportunity to see what college was like when their grandparents attended — a time, for better and worse, far different from what it's like today.

A Radical Guide for a Radical Time

Published in 1971, the "Underground Guide" arrived during a turbulent time in our nation's history. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed crippling inflation, soaring gas prices, and, of course, the Vietnam War, which spawned numerous campus upheavals as universities became the most visible epicenters of anti-establishment protests and ground zero for America's counterculture.

The civil rights-fueled Free Speech movement originated by students at the University of California, Berkeley morphed into anti-war demonstrations on campuses nationwide, culminating dramatically at Kent State University in 1970 with the National Guard killing four students.

It was also a time of hippies and Yippies, protest rock, experimental drugs, flower children, and free love — much of which flourished in microcosmic form on college campuses.

It was also a time of massive expansion and rapid growth, with college enrollment doubling between 1960 and the decade's end.

For aspiring college students, the good news was that admissions standards were, by and large, relatively relaxed. Only the most selective schools were hard to crack, though they were nowhere near as competitive as they are today. And some colleges considered reaches today were comparatively easy to get into back then.

Yet, those enrollments lacked the diversity found on campuses today. Women were underrepresented, dramatically so in certain cases, as were Black students. At some schools, particularly the elites, co-education was only beginning to take hold.

The "Underground Guide" helps paint this picture, offering snapshots of hundreds of colleges and universities.

It gives a quick, pithy, often irreverent summary of each institution (Humboldt State: "Lots of mescaline and grass"), followed by the "Sergeant Pepper" section (enrollment figures, entrance requirements, demographics, ethnic/racial makeup), "Academic Bullshit" (good departments, popular majors, famous faculty), "Bread" (tuition, housing, loans, scholarships), "Brothers and Sisters" (male-female ratio, dating scene), "Survival" (surrounding area, things to do), and "Environment" (climate, campus culture, general orientation of students).

Almost every major school is included, albeit with some notable exceptions, such as William & Mary (the nation's second-oldest college), the University of Texas at Austin, and, strangely enough, the aforementioned Kent State University.

So don that tie-dye, slip on some groovy bell bottoms, and let's split.

Admissions Standards Then Were Much Lower Than Today's

We'll acknowledge at the outset that we're taking what the "Underground Guide" says at face value. Nowhere does the book describe how it collected its data, other than a few references to conversations with students and campus visits. It does list a research staff, so presumably, some effort went into gathering institutional stats as well as anecdotal material.

What's more, the book rarely mentions acceptance rates, offering only qualitative assessments such as "very hard to get into." It does, however, frequently list standardized test scores.

For reference, the average SAT score in 1970 was 455 verbal and 488 math, for a total of 943. Today, it's 1028.

So, say you wanted to attend the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). To be competitive, you needed a 3.6 GPA. Today, the average is 4.19 (weighted).

Stanford "required" a 1200 SAT score. While Stanford remains test-optional for now, keep in mind, students' scores typically fall in the 1500-1570 range.

Georgetown University students likewise needed a 1200 and now score between 1390 and 1560.

Want to attend college in Florida? Piece of cake. To crack the University of Florida ("People are discussing the Indochina War and the beach"), you needed an SAT score of 1000 and a 2.5 GPA. The University of Miami was "easy to get into," requiring a 2.0 GPA and SATs of around 1000. Now students on average have a GPA of 3.8 (unweighted).

Similarly, the University of Maryland was "not hard to get into." All you needed was a 2.0 GPA and 1050 on the SAT. Now it's 1445.

Dream of attending college in Boston? For Boston College and Boston University, it took "fairly good grades" and about 1000 on the SAT. Students today at BU scored 1442.

And how about Northeastern University, which now accepts about 7% of applicants? Back then, getting in was "not hard," requiring B grades and 1000 on the SAT. About half of the students commuted.

At Cornell, you needed "generally high grades and SATs," and transferring to Washington University in St. Louis required a C+ average. Now it's a 3.5.

In the Research Triangle, Duke students needed an SAT score of around 1200, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) was "easy to enter," requiring a score of 1150. UNC students today enter with a collective range of 1370-1500.

Clemson University was even easier, with students needing 800 SATs and a C average. Now they're in the 1240-1400 range, while the average GPA is 4.43 (weighted).

And in-state students wanting to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison had to be in the "top 75%" of their class. These days, they rank in the 86-96th percentile.

To be sure, some colleges were highly competitive even back then. Yale's average SAT was about 1400, as was Harvard's. Amherst College accepted 18% of applicants (compared to 7% today).

For the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a 790 SAT math score was a "must have" (most popular course: Introduction to Automatic Computation).

Yet, at most colleges in America, the average student had no problem getting in. Only a handful of institutions were what we'd call highly selective today — and even then, they were nowhere near as competitive as they are now.

Tuition More Affordable, Even at Privates

More good news for college students a half-century ago: It was relatively affordable.

Tuition at the University of California, Berkeley was $325 per year. That's about $2,500 in 2024 dollars. Today, it's about $16,500.

A year at the University of Maryland was $506, far short of the $11,500 you'd pay now.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst? Try $100 per semester at that "hotbed of apathy."

Nowadays, that won't buy your Biology 101 textbook.

The University of Michigan ("90% of the cats wear their hair Beatles 1964 length") was far more costly, at $480 a year. Michigan students certainly would appreciate an annual tuition bill of $3,700 instead of the $17,228 they receive now.

Among privates, at the University of Southern California (USC), a school the book called "expensive," tuition was $2,000 per year, or roughly $15K today. Now it's $66,640.

Students at Columbia endured the "high cost of Ivy" at $2,300 annually, or $17,700 by today's standards — less than one-third of the $65,340 it costs today.

And students at Davidson College had to "pay through the nose" at $1,550 per year, or about $12,000 today. That's approximately 19% of the current $63,580 tuition.

But wait, you say. Earnings were lower back then, too. Indeed, the median family income in 1970 was $9,870, which translates to $76,000 in today's dollars. Currently, it's about $74,500.

So yes, college was comparatively much cheaper 50 years ago.

Lack of Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Diversity

Time-traveling back half a century would reveal a collegiate landscape far less diverse than the contemporary situation.

Big picture: Among people 18-24 years old, 32% of men and 20% of women attended college. Along racial lines, 27% of white youths and 15.5% of Black youths were enrolled.

So college students were predominantly white and male. How that played out from one campus to the next varied greatly.

Heading back to Caltech, we'd find 10 Black students. Total. That's out of a student population of 1,537.

At MIT, 90 of the 3,891 students were Black.

Among the University of Florida's 21,000 students were 86 people of color. Similarly, small Black populations existed at the University of Rochester (180 out of 9,100) and the University of Washington (553 out of 33,000). The total minority population at the University of Oregon was "less than 1%."

In Texas, Baylor University's enrollment of 6,377 students included 20 people of color. Rice University didn't admit Black students until 1965 and enrolled only 23 among its population of 2,200 at the time of the "Underground Guide" publication.

Amherst College ("The admissions committee loves sons of alumni") had 85 Black students across an enrollment of 1,245 students, while 81 of Notre Dame's 7,500 students were Black.

One bright spot was Oberlin College, long known for its diversity, which boasted a Black enrollment of 9%, or roughly double what it is currently.

Around that time, many colleges were just beginning to embrace coeducation. As such, many male-female ratios were ridiculously lopsided.

Wesleyan University, which had just gone coed in 1970, had a male-female ratio of 26-to-1. So had nearby Yale, though its ratio was a more reasonable 4-to-1.

Newly coed Lehigh University enrolled 5,000 men and 100 women, while Johns Hopkins University had 50 women in a student body of more than 8,800.

Princeton had gone coed a year before and enrolled 333 women out of a total population of 4,837.

Harvard still had its all-women's Radcliffe College but boasted a male-female ratio of 5-to-1. Likewise, Brown University enrolled women through Pembroke College, yet men (3,000) significantly outnumbered women (1,150).

Among other Ivies, Cornell (3-to-1) and Penn (2-to-1) experienced better gender balance but remained heavily male.

On the flip side, Bennington College, which also had gone coed in 1969, had 450 women among its 500 students. Sarah Lawrence College made a similar change a year before but still had a male-female ratio of 1-to-7.

Vassar College ("This pillar of upper-class instability recently went coed and culture shock set in") was home to 1,600 women and 92 men.

Meanwhile, Columbia's undergraduate schools, along with Dartmouth College, Williams College, Davidson, and Notre Dame, remained single-sex.

Even colleges that had long been coed had an imbalanced mix. USC, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Stanford had three men for every woman. The University of Virginia's ratio, at 6-to-1, was even more unequal.

Suffice it to say women weren't sufficiently represented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), either. At MIT, men outnumbered women by a 15-to-1 ratio. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, it was 40-to-1.

Today, 58% of college students are female.

A Trip Down Memory Lane (for Those Old Enough)

Flipping through the "Underground Guide" provides a fascinating snapshot of college life and paints a statistical portrait of the gender and racial imbalance found on America's campuses.

At the same time, the stress of getting in was much lower for college students, as were the financial hurdles.

Since then, we've seen progress on some fronts, such as diversity, and setbacks on others, mainly costs.

Anyone who lived through that era will find countless reminders of the rampant drug culture and freestyle social choices of the day, along with the political atmosphere that birthed so much protest and unrest.

But the book does cross certain lines, referring to police and other authority figures in derogatory ways now deemed socially unacceptable. Witness its assessment of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice as Exhibit A.

Still, if you're rummaging around an old bookstore and happen upon it, I recommend adding it to your library. At least find your school and see how much has changed.