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National Youth Administration: The College and High School Aid Program

The College and High School Aid Program of the National Youth Administration

A Speech by Aubrey W. Williams, Executive  Director of the National Youth Administration, before the joint meeting of college and university administrators and secondary school officials in the Penn Harris hotel at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 7 p.m. Thursday, September 23, 1937

Editor’s Note: During the New Deal period, social worker Aubrey Willis Williams (1890 – 1965) was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to two significant positions. First, he was appointed to be Assistant Federal Relief Administrator, the second highest ranking U.S. relief official. In this role, Williams reported to Harry Lloyd Hopkins, one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisers, and one of the architects of the New Deal. Hopkins directed the many relief programs of the new Works Progress Administration (WPA), which he built into the largest employer in the country. During the mid-1930s, the programs of the New Deal had already accomplished much good for the vast number of unemployed, for farmers, for Artists and Writers, for Homeowners, Bank Depositors and Investors. By the spring of 1935 though, 20 percent of the nation’s twenty-two million youngsters remained out of school and either on relief or wandering the country looking for work. In 1937, the President stated: “I have determined, that we shall do something for the nation’s unemployed Youth….” Beneficiaries would be all male and female youths aged 16 to 25 not regularly attending school. Time magazine of that year announced: “By executive order the President forthwith created a National Youth Administration (NYA), with Aubrey Williams as executive director.”

Aubrey Willis Williams
Aubrey Willis Williams

I am happy to join with you today in a discussion of the college and high school aid program of the Youth Administration for the coming winter. But before taking up immediateth problems, I should like to speak briefly of the fundamental problems out of which the National Youth Administration grew.

The Youth Administration was established to equalize opportunity for Youth. It was set up to raise economically disadvantaged Youth to within reach of opportunities denied them. It was a recognition by the Congress that there were large numbers of our young people to whom education, in high schools and colleges, was being denied. It was a facing of the problem that whole groups of our youths were caught in dead-ends and blind alleys with all entrances to an education or a job closed to them.

Obviously, in comparison to the millions of young people caught in these blind alleys the number that the Youth Administration has been able to help must seem small. Yet its total effects we believe outreach by far its grasp. The 650,000 Youth it aided directly last year represents but a part Of the effect it had upon the whole Youth problem.

What is of more significance probably is the recognition by the government of the problems and dilemmas confronting millions of our young people.
Congress acknowledged when it established the Youth Administration that education must be more than free. For there are millions who can only secure an education, particularly higher education, if some way is found to give the student a chance to earn some money with which to purchase clothes, food, pay his rent, and otherwise to keep body, mind and soul together. Education is still the privilege only of those economically able to afford it.

The school and its opportunities have had no meaning for millions of our young people. This was no fault of the teacher nor the would-be pupil. It was the fault of our economic system. We know now that for education to really be available for millions now denied it, that ways not now existent must be established by which food, shelter, clothing and fuel can be obtained This the National Youth Administration has done for a limited number. It has worked out a pattern. It has done for a few hundred thousand what ought to be done for millions.

We enter this program of student aid this fall with new problems confronting us. The fact that we have a smaller total sum of money for NYA purposes has made for many tragedies–tragedies to able and aspiring young people. The disappointment of those who have been turned down is of great concern to this administration as well as to the schools.

On the other side of the picture, however, the upturn in business and the improvement in the Nation’s economic status has without doubt lessened the total need in this field.

Congress passed the 1937 Relief Bill providing for $1,500,000,000 with no ear-markings. In the Bill provisions were made for a maximum limitation of $75,000,000 for the National Youth Administration

National Youth Administration Work Study
National Youth Administration Work Study

beyond which under no circumstances could expenditures for this program be made. There is a wide-spread misconception about this, for this figure does not mean the appropriation of $75,000,000. It simply means that within the total reduced relief appropriation we shall receive our proportionate share of the funds with a definite prohibition against spending beyond the figure states. Our expenditures for the past fiscal year totaled approximately $68,000,000 and the sum agreed upon, at present, to operate all phases of has been set at $50,000,000. Obviously this necessitated the program this year has reductions throughout the program–student aid–work projects–women’s camps–apprentice training–junior placement–administration. By careful analysis of past experience and present needs we determined the distribution of our funds. We found it possible to extend to colleges and universities 8% of the 1936 enrollment of students under twenty-five years of age. The change to the year 1936 for calculating enrollment was made at the request and advice of numerous educators with whom we consulted. The provision for limiting enrollment figures to students under 25,000, was upon the advice of the majority consulted, and was based upon their conviction that a more equitable distribution of funds would be obtained.

Our earliest plans called for the elimination of the entire graduate aid program, not because of a lack of need or a dissatisfaction with the graduate program, but because of limited funds and our desire to reach the most needy class of students. This plan was changed to provide for continuance of the graduate aid program with the privilege of higher monthly payments, but not as a separate budgetary item. Thus it has become a part of a combined graduate and undergraduate program.

Funds available made it possible to aid needy students in high schools up to approximately 70% of that allocated last year, with the exception of those states where either special drought or flood aid had been distributed following the unprecedented economic reverses subsequent to these ravages.

This year because of drought we have already distributed approximately $500,000 additional aid to those areas which are still affected. This is less than one-tenth the amount transmitted for the same purpose last year. The calls for many times this amount continue to pour in from those areas which are still in abject need. We are continuing to recognize the need for special assistance to aid young Negro graduate students to prepare themselves for the professions. This fund, too, has been reduced in keeping with our other curtailments.

A comparison of what this will make possible in aids to college and high school students as over against last year gives us this situation: To be exact, a total of 440,866 students in the United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico were given work on NYA projects in high schools, colleges, and graduate schools last year. In 22,675 secondary schools, there were 295,088 students earning an average wage of $4.88 a month; there were 140,362 undergraduate college students in 1,665 colleges earning an average wage of $12.66; and there were 5,416 graduate students in 188 graduate schools earning an average wage of $23.33 a month.

In your own State of Pennsylvania, 24,000 high school students in 1,107 high schools earned on NYA projects an average wage of $4.93; 7,772 undergraduate college students in 84 Pennsylvania colleges earned on NYA work projects an average of $12.35; and 331 graduate students in 17 Pennsylvania graduate schools earned an average wage of $19.82 a month. In your state alone, over 32,000 students were aided in obtaining an education through the NYA student work program.

National Youth Administation Participants
National Youth Administation Participants

This year the limitation of funds, $20,000,000 for the student aid program, will reduce the number of students who will be employed at the maximum payments to a quota of approximately 155,000 school students and 80,000 college and graduate students, or a total of 235,000. In the event the average monthly payments to students compare with the $4.88 average payment to high school students and the $12.66 to college students these figures will be slightly increased. The State of Pennsylvania has a quota of about 16,000 high school students and 5,100 college and graduate students.

In addition to the Student Work Program, which was employing over 440,000 students last April, there were 190,000 out-of-school young men and women employed on the Youth Administration Works Program, of which 16,000 were in the State of Pennsylvania. This program has also been reduced, and on August 25th there were 131,508 employed, 11,000 being in the State of Pennsylvania.

It is my desire now to discuss with you briefly the administration of the school aid program. From the inception of the first Federal work-aid to needy students which developed within the framework of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, we have insisted that its administration should be shared in equally by those responsible to the Federal Government, and by those administratively responsible for the schools attended by the students who were given work. It is my belief that whatever success it has had is due in no small way to this arrangement. In this mutually shared administration of the funds, we of the government have felt it necessary to stipulate as a matter of national policy the general formula setting the rules of eligibility, the average amounts of work to be the methods of reporting and of payments, and some general proviso regarding character of work to be done.

But we have left the actual carrying out of these policies to the college and school authorities.

May I, at this time, venture to reinterpret the national viewpoint of the school work program with which I believe you are all fairly familiar. First, I should like to discuss the responsibility of the school and college authorities.

With the reductions in available funds in your institutions, this year as compared to last year, we appreciate the fact that your selections are all the more difficult. It, therefore, seems to us that we must develop some general procedures for selection of students with a view to developing uniform standards, retaining, however, proper regard for the requirements of the individual institutions. One poor selection causes more criticism and lack of approval of this whole program than satisfactory selection in a hundred cases. On this point I think we should take the position that any student who cannot demonstrate to the satisfaction of the most critical inquirer through the information filed on his application form that this aid is essential for his attendance at that school is not entitled to NYA aid.

To assist the school authorities, we have developed for use this year a national student application form. In the past we have had in some states uniform blanks and in some states each college has had its own form. We are now desirous of obtaining on uniform blanks a minimum of essential information from every student assigned so that from these blanks we may develop some much needed national studies. Our state directors inform us that some schools object to these blanks because they are too detailed, others take the opposite view that they are too brief and superficial. May I assure you that we decided on the final form only after careful counsel with representative educators from both colleges and high schools called in to advise us as to the most satisfactory application blank which would give us the desired information and at the same time adapt itself to the nation as a whole. We hope that through your cooperation in submitting these applications to us we will be able to issue significant studies on the type of young people we are aiding.

Similarly with a view to assisting the college authorities, we have, this year, worked out a uniform national blank to be used in giving us information relative to your proposed work projects. From these work project statements we hope to be able to share with other schools the outstanding project plans and methods of administering the program. This is a pioneering venture. Almost every school has at least one or two unusual and socially desirable student aid work projects which afford a greater personal growth to the students and a finer contribution to the institution’s needs in return for the money expended.

From the NYA to the Navy Yard
From the NYA to the Navy Yard

We have been delighted with the improvement of the work projects in schools this past year. Early in our administration we met the criticism that many of our students looked upon Federal aid as “easy money.” This, as a matter of record, was never true, but it is gratifying that the most politically partisan now find little to criticize. As a matter of importance you and I know that the giving of work to students, both from the nature of the work and the character of its administration has created a whole new set of values for the students assigned and the institution as a whole. There is considerable evidence that the attitude of the country generally is changing to one of sincere appreciation of this manner of giving students not only a chance for continuing their education but the opportunity to “learn while doing” and get practical experience in their fields of major interest.

For the purposes of the record, I should like to enumerate just a few examples of the work being done by students:

We took a sample in some 388 colleges. For the most part, projects upon which students were working fell into distinct types of work activities, such as: Research and Surveys, Community Service Projects, Ground and Building Maintenance, Departmental Service, Library Service, Clerical Projects, and Construction Projects.

This sampling of 388 colleges represented almost 24% of the total colleges which were participating in the program last year. The projects reported by them employed a total of 7,083 college aid students.

Under the Community Service classification were the following activities:

NYA college students served as directors of play activities and organized recreational programs and stunts at community playground areas, community centers, elementary schools, and high schools. City Recreation Departments, children’s agencies, YMCA’s, YWCA’s, Settlement Houses, institutions for the blind, public schools, orphanages, hospitals for handicapped and crippled children, Boy’s clubs, Boy Scouts, community centers and churches were reported as cooperating agencies in supervising the students and in providing facilities for increased recreational programs to all young people in the community.

NYA students were assigned to teach and organize classes for out-of-school groups of youth and adults. These classes gave instruction in health, character education, academic subjects, handicrafts, dramatics, home economics, music, speech correction, etc. They were conducted in cooperation with the Emergency Education program of WPA, evening schools of colleges, CCC camps, orphanages, hospitals, demonstration schools and churches. Instruction was given to crippled children, blind children, CCC boys, immigrants, illiterates, and provided an opportunity to many out-of-school youths and adults who wished to continue their education.

NYA students acted as assistants in public libraries and performed work in arranging special exhibits and displays; cataloging and classifying books, data, and material of all kinds; performing clerical work in the libraries, shelving books, repairing and cleaning books; preparing special bibliographies; conducting story hours for children; and maintaining traveling library service.

NYA students assisted in investigations of delinquency and in guidance work with delinquent youth. They organized boys’ clubs in those districts where delinquency was prevalent; they performed research and investigation of parole cases; made surveys of delinquency areas; gave assistance at psychiatric clinics and juvenile courts; visited families in delinquency areas, and families of paroled prisoners.

Public welfare assistance was given by NYA students working as aides to Red Cross in flood areas and giving assistance to local welfare agencies in the performance of the work of these agencies. The duties of the students ranged from clerical work to case work.

NYA students were assigned to work with civic organizations in producing community entertainments, concerts, plays, benefits, community singing, and free musical instruction.

In public museums NYA students were employed as guides and acted as assistants. NYA students assigned to ground and building maintenance projects were performing work activities on the college campus in ground beautification–tree surgery, removal and replanting of trees, landscaping and terracing. They assisted in the construction of swimming pools, tennis courts, observatories, amphitheatres, recreation rooms, adobe office buildings, bus garages, broadcasting units, retaining walls, sidewalks, roads, and drainage ditches. They assisted in the repair and manufacture of furniture repair of steps, floors and windows.

While a great deal of NYA project work is departmental, the following classifications represent student work which bears a close relationship to the curriculum of the department in the collection and preparation of classroom material and the expansion of departmental routine activities:

NYA students have collected and classified and prepared supplementary teaching materials for training schools; collected and filed classwork of students; arranged exhibitions of classroom work acted as assistants in Teachers’ Placement Bureau; assistants to faculty in taking roll and passing out material; were operators of motion picture machines for visual instruction; and assistants in training schools and grade schools.

In the departments of physics, geology, zoology, botany, metallurgy, and schools of medicine, museum models have been constructed–telescopes, tracing cabinets, specimen cases, sound equipment, mine models; students have repaired and assembled archeological specimens, invertebrates, fossils, zoological and botanical specimens.

NYA students assisted in research studies, made surveys in preparation for research work, prepared statistical tables, maps, charts, etc. This type of work is usually closely related to the student’s major field of interest and has high educative value in the expansion and development of the student’s experience in the application of classroom theory. Research work covered most of the fields of knowledge. I will cite a few of these projects to illustrate the work of NYA students:

They made occupational surveys and did special guidance investigation, and research in Physiology, Zoology and Medicine.
These boys and girls did research survey in the legal field; surveyed records of law students; made studies in property law; studies in merchant law; transcription of legal debates in foreign countries; compilations of social welfare laws; and compilations of insanity laws.

In Psychological research, evaluations of test items and studies of culture cycles were made.

In economic research, studies of the social concept of money were made, industrial and business trends were followed.

Surveys were made of building illumination; of graduates and their professions, salaries, etc.; community and delinquency surveys; surveys of Negro population; of student life; of traffic; and the use of food products.

In the field of statistics, maps, charts, and graphs were made, such as relief maps, historical maps, land maps, delinquency area maps, maps of game areas and weather maps.

NYA students assigned to work in college libraries performed a wide variety of services, such as, cataloging, indexing, classifying and accessioning, binding and repairing books, clipping and cataloging magazine and newspaper articles, typing and preparing reading lists and reference lists. These students’ also acted as circulation desk assistants, and library departmental assistants.

The clerical type of project, as reported, included all types of steno graphic and clerical assistance to departments, administrative offices, alumni offices, and information offices.

NYA students performing duties as laboratory assistants were given the responsibility of preparing laboratory materials; setting up laboratory demonstration equipment; classifying and identifying laboratory materials; making up solutions; and checking experiments.

I’m sure that with only this partial list of activities it is easy to see that there is literally no end to the possibilities for sound work assignments available in every institution. I have faith that every college head and every school superintendent and principal can, with a little initiative, develop a constantly improving program for real service both to the student and the institution or community.

Yours, too, is the sole responsibility for adequate and correct supervision. I appreciate the growing demands upon the administrator’s and faculty members’ time and energy, yet a project is no better than its

From the NYA to a Defense Industry
From the NYA to a Defense Industry

supervision. Many excellent plans have failed because of poor or inadequate supervision. It seems to me that supervision of these projects will not and cannot be at its best until you as educators recognize the importance and possibilities of the Work Program, not as something extracurricular, but wholly curricular.

We have been discussing the school authorities’ share of responsibility in the administration of the National Youth Administration’s program and I confess that I find it difficult to leave the subject without yielding to the temptation so often succumbed to of going into what the schools and Colleges ought to do about this whole business of education and the world outside. I shall, however, not yield to the temptation of counseling them but I do hold that it is relevant to both the obligations and the opportunities of the Youth Administration to take this opportunity to discuss with you some questions that bear directly upon the relation of the National Youth Administration to the schools and colleges of the country as well as to industry and the world of agriculture and commerce.

First of all, I want to raise the general question as to the need and desirability of continuing the program of giving work to students as provided in the appropriations to the National Youth Administration. Granted that it was all right to do this sort of thing in the worst days of the depression, should it be continued now that better times have returned?

Second, does government assistance in the form extended to young people by the National Youth Administration tend to weaken rather than strengthen those youths that are helped?

Third, has the NYA student work assistance injected external controls in the affairs of the colleges and secondary schools of the Nation.

With regard to the first of these questions, “Granted that it was all right to do this sort of thing in the worst days of the depression, should it be continued now that better times have returned?”, the answer to this, it seems to me, rests on how far the general population participates or shares not only in the upward trends of business and agriculture but also, of more significance, bow much they share in the total income of the Nation. There can be no question but what we are in the midst of better times. Upwards of eight or nine million people have gone back to work. On all hands, we read of accelerated business activities. There can be no doubt but that men are making money again, but an examination of the spread of the national income indicates that there is, to just as great an extent as was true in l929, large groups of people without adequate means even for bare subsistence. Moreover, as has been shown by several surveys recently conducted, a large percentage of families in America still receive annual incomes which are considerably below a minimum health and decency standard. The Bureau of Home Economics of the Department of Agriculture in a series of studies which it has been making of purchases made by families in various communities through out the nation tells us that in 1935-36 one out of four families in cities had incomes below $750 and one out of 3 less than $1,000. In the small villages the situation was even worse. There, two out of 5 families had incomes below $760 and more than one-half had incomes below $1,000. Despite the prosperity which we have achieved, if we consider the families of the unemployed and those on relief, there are probably twice as many families receiving incomes below $500 now as did in 1929.

It is common knowledge that with 70% of our families having an annual income of under $1,500 that they do not have any margin of funds with which to send their children to institutions of higher learning. So, the realities of the situation are simply these that unless the government or some other means is found of aiding young people in 70% of our families, they have little or no chance to going to college. Some measure of how great is the number of young people denied even secondary school opportunities is indicated by the fact that the Census of 1930 shows that there were 9,528,000 persons United States between the ages of 14 and 17, while according to the United States Office of Education, the total enrollment in public end private high schools in the United States was 6,014,000, as of 1934, or 63.1% of the total. Here we see that 3,514,000 young people in the United States were being denied attendance at high schools. With regard to college, the figures show only 11% of those in the college age group–18 to 21–attending any institutions of higher learning or 1,250,000 out of 11,300,000. So we can come to only one conclusion and that is that whether it be the National Youth Administration or some other arrangement either within or without the government, if the spread of opportunities which has been begun by the National Youth Administration is to continue, something must be provided which gives these young people–the great army of wage earner families–a chance to earn their way through colleges.

With regard to whether or not the methods employed by the National Youth Administration tend to weaken rather than strengthen the moral fibre of our Youth, that can only be answered fully by detailed following through of the youths who have taken advantage of these opportunities. Enough of the record, however, has been made already to indicate that not only has this thing tended to attract and give opportunities to young people who were strong, but it has left them indeed, if anything, stronger because of what they have done in connection with the National Youth Administration. For, four years now those youths given work in the colleges of the Nation by the National Youth Administration have been among those averaging the highest grades in their respective schools.

From information received from 291 colleges in 31 states–168 of those colleges, or 57.7%, reported that NYA students made higher, grades than non-NYA students 71, or 24.4%, reported that there was no essential difference in the grades of NYA students and non-NYA students 31, or 10.7%, reported that non-NYA students made higher grades two, or less than 1%,  reported that NYA students made below average grades. Seventeen, or 6%, reported that NYA students made above average grades. Two, or less than 1%, reported that NYA students made just average grades.

From information received from 432 high schools, in 14 states–154, or 35.6% reported that NYA high school students made higher grades than non-NYA students 82, or 19%, reported that there was no essential difference in the grades of NYA students and non-NYA students. One hundred and thirty four, or 31%, reported that non-NYA students made higher grades.  Twenty two, or 5%, reported that NYA students were above the average. Twenty one, or 5%, reported that NYA students were equal to the average. Nineteen, or 4.4%, reported that NYA students made below average grades

As a matter of common knowledge, we do not have much to fear about this business of making softies of those young people who are eligible for work with the Youth Administration–they come from either families on relief or in such obviously hard bitten circumstances that the daily provisioning of enough food, obtaining funds for the month’s rent, and patching daily the clothes on their back, involves the whole family in the struggle.

Further, those who profess to be alarmed about the depletion of the moral fiber of our youth forget that we offer work, not a dole, to these young people. We do, and you should, regard this as a youth work and employment program. From every college–from thousands of high schools–comes evidence supplied by the school people of the nation that not only are we not weakening youth–but to the contrary–by injecting the idea of work into the high schools and colleges of the country we have supplied a much needed and necessary element in the training of all young people.

With regard to the last question, “Has the NYA student work assistance injected external controls in the affairs of the colleges and secondary schools of the Nation,” let me say, I raise this question not because any responsible school official has within the year raised an accusing finger at us, but to again make our position clear. It has been our consistent position from the start that we would not ourselves, nor would we permit any of our local officers, seek to influence one iota the content of the curricula nor the administration of the schools or colleges. We submit that after two years we have proven our good faith, and I reaffirm that position for the future. The President in all of his instructions to me has made it clear that he wanted no efforts at influencing, or assumption of the duties or functions of the schools or colleges of the country. And this we have done.

Youth today as always, seeks his place in the adult world. They want what all men want, homes, work, families, happiness. But youth, as with many adults, is bewildered. Even from the homes in better circumstances, youth is perplexed and shaken with a sense of insecurity. It has gone through the most trying period in our nation’s history. It has lived out its childhood and adolescence in the years of the depression. Modern methods of communication and transportation have given it world perspective by removing local and provincial barriers. Green pastures beyond the home fence are as green to today’s youth as they were to you and me or to our parents. Youth today is discerning, critical, and analytical. There is much evidence that youth today has accepted as its slogan, “Youth must share as well as serve.” From an economic standpoint, the situation is much more hopeful than it was three years hence, but there is the recognition that recovery in industry, business, and commerce has not yet reached downward to better the position of the secondary wage earner in the average American family. Our program has helped, the CCC has helped, other federal and state programs have helped, but the problem has not been solved, the surface has been but scratched. The need is still far in excess of our combined efforts to meet the situation.

This leads to my closing observations on “What about tomorrow?” Because of my faith in the youth of America, a faith made stronger by the rigid tests to which youth has been subjected these past few years and from which youth has emerged rich in ability and integrity, I am convinced that from the ranks of these young people and the generations to come there will be developed in a greater degree the answers to the problems which we of this generation have been unable to provide, or which we have answered in error. Youth is finding a way out through its own leadership and the sympathetic and wise counsel of its elders. I am convinced that youth today through the youth of tomorrow will provide a more favorable and more wholesome atmosphere to pursue a richer and more fruitful life of service than we have experienced. Tomorrow will give greater attention to the well-being and happiness of the masses of men than to the development of material things. “This is Utopia,” you say. No, it is merely progress toward the life more abundant. All this I believe possible but only if we do our part now, and our part is the leaving of no stone unturned which fails to give youth today every possible chance to learn, to acquire what is justly his, and to help him to serve.

Source: New Deal Network: www.newdeal.feri.org. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hopkins Papers, Box 13

3 responses to “National Youth Administration: The College and High School Aid Program”

  1. My 89 year old aunt just told me that she was thankful for the NYA because that is how she was able to leave her parent’s poor farm and go to Indianapolis, IN and look for a job. I have not yet been able to interview her further, but certainly plan to do so. I must admit I had not heard of the NYA (even though I did know of the CCC, and WPA programs) The above article has some of the very same “thinking” of today’s Republican conservatives about making those who need economic assistance feel like they are taking advantage, when corporate ‘welfare’ is just fine. I realize that my bias is showing.

    • Dear Ms. Chiado: Many thanks for the comment about the NYA and how it helped your aunt. Warm regards, Jack Hansan

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