Interwar Admissions Policies

A Tale of Two Colleges:

Jews and Maine’s Baptist Institutions during the Interwar Years

by Prof. David M. Freidenreich and Desiree Shayer ’12

presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, Dec. 21, 2010

click here for the complete paper

During the years between World War I and World War II, it was common for American colleges and universities to limit the number of Jewish students through restrictive admissions policies.  Colby College, which was then affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention, stands out among its peers as particularly open to Jewish students.  In the 1930’s, an average of 7 percent of Colby students were Jewish, while at Bowdoin and Bates Jews constituted only about 4.5 and 3.5 percent of the student body, respectively.  Colby’s open admissions policy reflects the progressive educational values of its interwar presidents, Arthur J. Roberts and Franklin W. Johnson, who insisted that students be judged as individuals, not on the basis of their ethnicity.

President Clifton D. Gray of Bates College, another Baptist institution, sought to limit Jewish enrollment to 3% of the total student body.  His concern about the presence of too many Jews at Bates reflects both the general prejudices of his era and also, it would seem, his conception of the Christian character of Bates College.  The impact of Bates’ restrictions on Jewish students is apparent when one compares the number of out-of-state Jews at Bates and at Colby: between 1925 and 1942, only about 70 Jews from outside of Maine attended Bates, while at Colby over 230 out-of-state Jews attended.  Bates was, however, committed to educating local students, including the Jews of Lewiston and Auburn.  As a result, about one-fifth of college-age Jews from these towns attended Bates during the interwar years.

The impact of Colby College on the Jewish community of Waterville was even more striking: 45% of local college-age Jews attended Colby during the interwar years, and at least 60% of these Jews pursued higher education somewhere.  This rate of college attendance is remarkable: historians estimate attendance rates of about 30% in Providence, R.I., and New York City and only 11–17% in Johnstown, Pa., an industrial town whose Jewish population was otherwise very similar to that of Waterville.  The decision of so many members of Waterville’s Jewish community to take advantage of Colby’s open admissions policy resulted in that community’s especially rapid rise into the upper middle class.

Our study of this subject was supported by a Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Grant from Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement