Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


The adoption of the new curriculum in 1893 made inevitable a review and reconsideration of admission requirements, which had not changed significantly since the College opened. New


knowledge, new subjects, and a growing public demand for a departure from the rigid pattern that had been inherited from the past made readjustment at the college level mandatory if institutions of higher learning were not to lose touch with the leading secondary schools and were to provide a "scheme of liberal education that seeks to be more than medieval." Many felt that the least the colleges could do was meet the preparatory schools halfway and recognize new educational developments in admission policies. Tufts had already assumed the leadership among New England institutions in offering, through the philosophical curriculum, modern languages as a parallel avenue to the traditional Greek requirement for admission, although it continued to require Latin for the A.B. degree for those who did not elect Greek. The liberalization of admission requirements in 1892 which allowed the substitution of French or German for Greek anticipated the plea made in 1897 by the Massachusetts Association of Classical and High School Teachers that the colleges of the state make greater allowance in their admission policies for the curricular limitations of the smaller high schools that attempted to prepare students for college. The College now determined to take an even more advanced position. Revised entrance requirements would allow a wide range of options that recognized diverse secondary school programs without lowering the standards of the institution at the same time.

In attempting to solve its admission problems, Tufts was in no sense "going it alone." From the day it had accepted students, the institution had cooperated and consulted both formally and informally with its sister institutions in the Northeast. At no time did it endeavor to lead an isolated existence, outside the mainstream of educational currents. Tufts was, in fact, a charter member of the Association of Colleges in New England, organized in 1858 and operating for many years (for largely geographical and practical reasons) as the Association of Southern New England Colleges. At its first meeting, held at the residence of President Woolsey of Yale, the membership and objectives of the Association were outlined. Each participating institution was to be represented by its president and one faculty member. The purpose of the organization was "to take into consideration various matters of common interest to the several colleges." President Ballou and Professor Marshall were Tufts' first delegates, and for the two succeeding


years (until his death in 1861), Ballou took a different member of the faculty each time. Presidents Miner and Capen continued the same policy, and on several occasions Tufts played host to the Association.

In like manner, Tufts was represented, beginning in the 1860's, at the informal meetings of the Association of College Officers, which was officially constituted the New England College Officers Assocition in 1907. Whenever professional and scholarly organizations met in the Boston area in the nineteenth century, they could count on an invitation to visit the College.[22] 

The twin problems of raising secondary school admission standards and achieving some measure of uniformity in college admission requirements occupied increasingly prominent places on the agenda of meetings among college representatives. Minor changes in the Tufts requirements in Greek and Latin were effected as the result of one set of recommendations made by the Association of Southern New England Colleges in 1878. Another proposal of the Association which the Tufts faculty unanimously supported in 1885 was the establishment of a Commission on Entrance Examinations for preparatory schools.

The committee that was created confined its activities to draw-up lists of secondary schools that wished their students to be admitted to college by certificate. The New England Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools was established in 1885. When it was proposed in 1892 that its Committee on Admissions be empowered to extend activities beyond establishing uniform requirements for secondary schools and include "the whole subject of requirements for admission to college, and methods of examining," a solid wall of opposition by the colleges appeared as if by magic. Institutions of higher learning were quite willing to set secondary school standards but jealously guarded their prerogative to establish their own admission requirements and conduct their own examinations.[23]  Tufts, like many other institutions, made an exception in the case of Regents' Examinations in New York State. The long-time direct control and strict regulation of secondary education there (since 1784) had made it possible to admit students to


college by "Regents' cards" in lieu of the examinations ordinarily taken. The Tufts faculty finally (in 1894) agreed to the principle that uniform requirements for admission and examination might safely be placed in the hands of an outside agency, namely, the Committee on Admission Examinations of the Association of Colleges in New England.[24] 

One admission policy (adopted in 1900) related specifically to the degree program then in operation that allowed a student to complete the A.B. and M.A. requirements in four years. Students could obtain both advanced standing and credit for work done in secondary school. In order to take advantage of this alternative, the applicant had to pass an entrance examination with a grade of "B" or better in the subject in which credit was desired and continue the subject in college for at least one year, maintaining a grade of "C" or better. Only courses "higher than those for which advanced standing has been granted may count towards the degree." [25] 

New admission requirements were embodied in the recommendations of a special faculty Committee on Entrance Requirements appointed in January 1896. It labored until October and produced a plan that was adopted by the faculty of the school of letters. Each candidate for admission was to pass examinations in two groups of subjects, known respectively as Primary and Secondary. The Primary Group consisted of English, elementary preparation in a foreign language, history, and mathematics. These were considered prescribed subjects, a basic knowledge of which was regarded as fundamental to college study. Except for English and mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, and geometry), there was some choice allowed within the Primary Group: German, French, Latin, or Greek was acceptable for the foreign language requirement; candidates were allowed to take examinations in two of four fields of history: Greek, Roman, English, or American.

The innovation came with the so-called Secondary Group, which provided a range of options in both breadth and depth. The students were allowed to offer, for example, advanced foreign


language; intensive study in history (defined as a two-year course or a one-year course in a limited area either geographical or chronological); advanced mathematics (plane trigonometry, solid and analytic geometry) and advanced algebra; and physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and drawing. All of the subjects were, for the first time, listed in terms of entrance units, computed on the basis of time spent in the high school on each subject. The formula, which assumed four years of college preparatory work, resulted in a total requirement of twenty-four entrance units. Eight were to be in the Primary Group and sixteen in the Secondary Group. The latter included a requirement of advanced foreign language. Anyone familiar with the system of "Carnegie units" of a somewhat later day will easily recognize its general outline here. Applicants for admission were to be allowed conditional standing (i.e., deficiency) on no more than one entrance unit in the Primary Group and no more than four in the Secondary Group. Three of the four deficiencies had to be made up before graduation. Work taken to fulfill entrance requirements could not be counted toward the degree requirements.

An alternate route to admission was still provided by the certificate system that had been introduced to a limited extent in 1886-87 but had never been considered with enthusiasm. In fact, when admission by certificate was introduced, it was intended only for special cases and was, as frankly stated in the catalogue, "regarded with disfavor." Candidates so admitted were considered automatically to be on probation, and admission could be withdrawn at any time if the students' preparation was found to be inadequate.[26]  The certificate had to specify which of the subjects had been pursued and to what extent they differed from the requirements laid down for admission by examination.

The new entrance requirements for admission by examination became optional in 1897-98 and mandatory in 1898-99, but an attempt was made to regularize and enforce admission by certificate before the new program went into effect.[27]  School principals were


required "to state with exactness the time in years and in weekly periods given to each subject certified, with the standing of the candidate in each subject, according to the records of the school; and in addition a brief statement of the ground covered by the instruction, books, and method used, and such other particulars as department examiners of this College may see fit to require." No certificate would be accepted that covered a course of study of less than four years (although the four years could be taken at more than one secondary school), or from a school which had not filed with the College a full statement of its teaching force and its course of instruction. The tightening up of admission by certificate was a recognition that there had been a tendency to receive certificates too liberally and without a real check on the issuing school. A natural sequel to this new effort was the compilation by the College of a list of "acceptable" schools. Many a principal or superintendent was informed that his school was not on the approved list. The College made it clear in its public releases that "the acceptance of certificates is regarded as a favor to the candidate and a courtesy to the certifying school."

The long struggle to achieve some semblance of uniformity in admission examinations in American colleges and universities came at the very time that Tufts was revising its liberal arts curriculum and reviewing its own admission policies and procedures. The College Entrance Examination Board, created in 1900, was built on the foundations laid by the New England Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools and the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Middle States and Maryland, and on the efforts of such educators as Charles W. Eliot of Harvard and Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia.[28]  The College Board, created originally as an instrument of the Middle States Association and developed eventually as a nation-wide organization, was intended as an agency by which uniform college entrance examinations could be conducted simultaneously at many locations and through


which certificates could be issued that would take the place of examinations traditionally given by individual institutions. The Board had the long-range and indirect effect of promoting the standardization of secondary school curricula that was more explicitly undertaken by various national and regional accrediting agencies.

Tufts promptly agreed (in 1901) to accept certificates of examination issued by the Board and in 1902 joined forces with twelve other northeastern institutions to form the New England College Entrance Certificate Board as a regional organization. One by one the New England colleges joined the College Entrance Examination Board. When Tufts became a member in 1910 it followed a policy shared by many other institutions. It abandoned its local entrance examinations administered in June but retained its own examinations administered in September. Not until after September 1940 did the College give the last of its own admission examinations and depend on a combination of College Board examinations and certificates.[29]  Academic credentials in terms of so-called Carnegie units (fifteen) were adopted by the faculty in 1915.[30]  Tufts showed a continued willingness to use the major tests developed by the College Board, including the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), first developed in 1926.[31]  During the Second World War, President Leonard Carmichael headed a Special Advisory Committee on Research and Development appointed by the Board to review the entire testing program when the nation returned to peacetime.


[22] Two such organizations were the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Historical Association.

[23] The faculty at Tufts were among those who voted down the proposal.

[24] The path was undoubtedly eased by the presence of Professor Charles E. Fay on the committee. Uniform requirements were first adopted in languages (English, French, and German).

[25] This program, which lasted for over a decade, is particularly interesting in view of the highly publicized Advanced Placement program organized through the College Entrance Examination Board in the 1950's and operating in twelve fields a decade later.

[26] The first group of women admitted to Tufts came by way of certificate rather than examination.

[27] A faculty committee screened all applications, but candidates for admission by examination had to run the gamut of a full faculty vote, and the decisions of the committee were frequently challenged and sometimes reversed.

[28] The background of the CEEB is detailed in Edwin C. Broome, A Historical and Critical Discussion of College Admission Requirements (New York: Columbia University Press, 1902). For an informal history of the CEEB, with much attention to personalities, see Claude M. Fuess, The College Board: Its First Fifty Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950). See also I. L. Kandel, Examinations and Their Substitutes in the United States (New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1936).

[29] However, the College continued to give its own placement and exemption examinations in several departments.

[30] One advantageous result of adopting these standardized criteria for admission was the reduction of the bulkiness of the annual catalogue. At one time over fifteen closely printed pages were devoted to describing the intricacies of admission requirements for liberal arts students alone.

[31] Some edition of this test, first subdivided into verbal and mathematical sections in 1929-30, has been familiar to almost all Tufts undergraduates since the Second World War.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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