How We Got Here: Part 1

Nathan Allen
5 min readApr 17, 2023

The New College Plan

Many of the “experimental” colleges that were founded in the late 1950s to early 1970s began with a crisis. “It is acknowledged on all sides that American higher education is facing a crisis and that if we are to continue ‘the pursuit of excellence’ on which our society’s growth, health, and safety depend, we shall have to bring to bear both great resources and great imagination.”

So begins “The New College Plan,” a “Proposal for a Major Departure in Higher Education” produced in 1958 by professors from Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts at the behest of their presidents and with the assistance of a few dozen other college professors and advisors. When considering the status and future of the colleges born from “The New College Plan” — New College going bankrupt in the 1970s and declining in quality, Hampshire nearing bankruptcy in 2019 — it’s worth reviewing the authors’ view of the ‘crisis’ and their proposed solutions.

The “crisis” was the impression that too many students were entering college as robots, processed through an education factory, and shipped out with credentials but not much of an education. Perhaps shockingly, these professors describe their own students this way (“We mean by ‘average’ the typical student in our own colleges, whose lack of initiative is so often deplored.”) “The changes we propose reflect widespread opinion in the academic world,” they assure the reader, and, among other criticisms, they assert that “It is a widely-held conviction among liberal arts faculties that our system of courses and credits has got out of hand.”

The 1950s witnessed an explosion in college attendance: for the first time, attending college became a national norm. Yet many colleges responded with “underwater basket weaving,” an epithet first coined in the 1950s to describe easy, perfunctory courses invented for these new students. And yet, the problem wasn’t contained to large public schools; note that “The New College Plan” was mostly authored by professors at small private schools, and their criticisms were often directed inwardly. Amherst itself hosted the year-long conference to assess the problem and propose a solution.

The plan proved influential; it proposed what was to become Hampshire College, though the first college established under the influence of the plan was the aptly named New College in Florida. The salient aspects of the proposed “major departure” are:

The Core. The authors were clearly critical of colleges launching freshmen into an ever-increasing labyrinth of courses without direction or foundation. So, New College (as it’s called in the proposal) would have a strong core that includes eleven foundational courses distributed across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences and eight winter term courses. The normal fall/spring semester would be fourteen weeks each, and students would take only three courses; the ‘winter term’ would be scheduled in January-February, and the entire college would take the same class (broken into lecture/study groups). The purpose of having an entire school, envisioned as 1,000 students, taking the same class was to build community and dialogue. The winter term courses often would be taught by visiting faculty and cover emerging topics, while the foundational core would cover more traditional topics.

The eleven foundational courses would not be ‘survey’ courses; the authors believed students should learn ‘survey course’ information on their own. Rather, these foundational courses would focus on teaching the applied tools and techniques of each area of inquiry. To further fuel academic dynamism and deny the supremacy of courses, the proposal eliminates departments.

The Economics. The authors address in detail — the proposal includes spreadsheets — the economics of their proposal. They are adamant that New College have a 20:1 student-faculty ratio (so, 50 professors for 1,000 students) and propose a variety of methods to ensure the highest quality education occurs at such a ratio (visiting professors, student-teachers, etc.). As their proposal “dethrones the course as the unit of knowledge,” it “drastically reduces the number of courses that need be offered. It will be able to do this because it will devote a great deal of faculty time to teaching the student to teach himself.”

Three key components of their economic argument are: (1) students should be taught to teach themselves; (2) professors who do not serve the college’s mission should be replaced; (3) the college should leverage outside support. The first is achieved in part by implementing and coordinating discussion groups not on an ad hoc basis but by administrative control such that they are fully integrated into the curriculum. The second component reflects the authors’ belief that the college needs to be dynamic in all regards, and if a professor’s skills aren’t responsive to students’ interests, then the professor should be replaced. The third component entails visiting lecturers, third-party assessors (to grade students), and utilizing community resources (libraries, athletic facilities, etc.). The authors also envision students taking classes at other colleges (during the academic year or over the summer). This is, in part, what we think of as applying a ‘distance learning’ solution to address some economic realities. (“The College will also be hospitable to the resources increasingly available in educational films, television, and language laboratory facilities.”). In all cases, the authors conclude that the economics of the college relies on focusing its resources on its mission and not pursuing “the superficial and the faddist.”

In assessing the proposal’s impact, particularly on the colleges it very directly influenced (Hampshire, New College), one must observe that nowhere was “the New College experiment” implemented faithfully. The many warnings about maintaining the 20:1 student-faculty ratio weren’t heeded; the community-building core too often fell apart. (New College in Florida had a core for twelve years; it was abandoned because of bureaucratic in-fighting.)

While the proposal wasn’t faithfully implemented, many at that time were standing athwart academia, yelling stop. The authors of the New College proposal were mostly the usual crowd: professors at and presidents of Amherst, Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Swarthmore. Two names stand out as the only contributors affiliated with an institution south of Virginia: John Allen, president of the University of South Florida in Tampa (USF), and Sidney French, USF’s dean. At the time, USF only existed on paper; it didn’t even have a name.

Allen had previously been the president of the University of Florida and was determined to create the new Tampa college in the spirit of the New College proposal he helped develop. He referred to USF as “the Harvard of the South,” demanded the highest quality professors, and refused to fund athletics (per the New College proposal). Within a few years, the pressure of competing constituencies forced Allen to compromise his “Harvard of the South” vision.

The failure of the New College proposal to produce a successful and stable college may then be viewed not in light of those who attempted to build such a place but rather in the context of the philosophically adjacent USF. The authors of the proposal seem to underestimate the necessity of maintaining the will to implement and perpetuate the vision. They may have designed a great ship, but even great ships need good captains.

And yet, if the proposal’s assertion that ill-equipped students demotivated by the system and attempting to navigate a labyrinth of fad-chasing courses created a ‘crisis’ of higher education in 1958, then that crisis has only metastasized. So, if such a crisis impairs “society’s growth, health, and safety,” then perhaps the authors wouldn’t be surprised by the characteristics of modern social life.

“The New College Plan.” https://compass.fivecolleges.edu/object/hampshire:1339

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