by Gregg Ivers, Professor of Government, American University*
Until the early 1960s, American college campuses were among the last places that one could expect to find raging debates over controversial ideas or alleged administrative efforts to limit the “free expression” of students, faculty or invited guests. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Slightly less than ten percent of all Americans completed a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university in 1960. And that even takes into account the enrollment boom after World War II, when returning veterans used the newly enacted G.I. Bill to attend college. By 1947, World War II veterans made up roughly fifty percent of college students in the United States. That trend continued into the 1950s after Congress enacted additional legislation to support Korean War veterans who wanted to earn a college degree. Not surprisingly, men, by 1960, attended and completed college at roughly double the rate of women. Due to restrictive admissions policies and cultural norms, many women attended private women’s colleges rather than elite private universities reserved for men or the flagship public institutions of their state. The college gender gap did not begin to close in a meaningful way until the early 2000s. By 2013, women attended and completed college at higher rates than men, regardless of race or ethnic origin, a trend that has remained consistent through 2017.
For African Americans in 1960, entering college and completing a bachelor’s degree were even more elusive goals. Somewhere between two and three percent of African American men and women were enrolled in four-year institutions in 1960, almost all of whom attended black colleges and universities. Although the Supreme Court had ruled well before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that white public universities could not exclude African American students if “equal opportunities” were not available to them at black institutions within their state, most Jim Crow states of the South were dragged kicking and screaming to desegregate their ever-growing systems of higher education. Governor George Wallace’s petulant “last stand” against a federal court order to admit James Hood and Vivian Malone into the University of Alabama in June 1963 marked the formal end to segregated public higher education in the United States.