Travel Grant Recipient’s Research on Scholarships


Dr. Thomas Adam is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington whose research and publications focus on the place of philanthropy in modern American and European societies since 1800.  Currently, he is working on a study of funding for undergraduate education at American universities and colleges from 1800 to 1945. For this study, he selected 35 colleges and universities from across the country including Washington University in St. Louis, which he visited in August 2012.

Caused by current debates about the affordability of college education for middle- and lower-class Americans Adam investigates the many ways in which socio-economically disadvantaged students were able to afford college in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tuition fees represented a serious obstacle to many students whose parents were often not able to pay the $150 which it cost to attend Washington University before World War I. Scholarships provided by the trust fund established through an endowment of the Western Sanitary Commission or university-funded scholarships designated for high school graduates from St. Louis proved essential for students from families with limited means to make the dream of a university degree and a better life come true.

However, scholarships were not only for the poor. They also helped fortify privilege by securing admission for students from well-off families which had in the past provided funding for the university. For university administrators of Midwestern universities from Oberlin College and Western Reserve College in Ohio to Washington University in Missouri and Baylor University in Texas, a very common instrument to collect funds for endowments from well-off families was the selling of “perpetual scholarships.” In order to obtain funding for the founding of a university, the establishment of an endowment, the construction of university buildings or the rebuilding of a university after catastrophes such as fire, Midwestern universities offered potential donors tuition waivers for their descendants by pledging a specific amount of money to the general endowment of the college. This money was, however, often not kept in an endowment fund that would have produced income but it was rather spent, to use Alexander Langsdorf’s words, on “brick and mortar.”[1] Western Reserve College seems to have been among the first colleges to offer such perpetual scholarships as early as the 1830s. In contrast to colleges and universities which introduced this type of endowment creation decades later, the perpetual scholarships at $100 (for a four-year tuition waiver), $500 (for a twenty-year tuition waiver) and $1000 (for a tuition waiver for eternity) at Western Reserve College were acquired in large numbers by church communities rather than individual donors. Depending on the donation, the church community could then send several student selected from their midst to attend this college for a four-year term free of charge.[2] When Oberlin College in 1851 sought to build an endowment of $100,000 to secure its continued operations, half of that amount was collected through the sale of scholarships which came in three classes: (1) for a donation of $25 the donor was entitled to six years of tuition-free instruction for one student; (2) $50 bought him eighteen years of free instruction; (3) and $100 granted him tuition-free instruction for eternity for a descendant.[3] The donors had the right to appoint a student for a term of four years to receive free instruction, but they could never appoint more than one student at the same time. When Indiana University in Bloomington in 1854 faced vast destruction of its main building and its library, its administrators also resorted to the selling of scholarships to finance reconstruction. In contrast to Western Reserve College and Oberlin College, there was only one class of scholarships and the term of the scholarship was not limited. For $100 donors were offered tuition-free instruction for one descendant at the time for eternity. Initially, only relatives or descendents of the donor were entitled to the tuition-free instruction. From 1857, donors could appoint anyone to the scholarship. However, the benefit of this tuition waiver lost its significance already in 1860 when Indiana University stopped charging tuition to all in-state students.[4]

When Washington University was founded in 1853, perpetual scholarships were again considered as a means to collect endowments for this new university. Article IV of its constitution1854-charter-p5and6 introduced similar to the structure of perpetual scholarships at Western Reserve College and Oberlin College three classes although with much higher contributions: (1) $1000 provided twenty-five years of free tuition; (2) $2000 secured fifty years of free tuition; (3) and $5000 offered tuition-free education for eternity.[5] While the contributions at Washington University were much higher than at Oberlin College and at Indiana University, Washington University was not very successful in attracting a large number of donors and thus collected a smaller amount of funding than Oberlin College. In the case of Oberlin College nearly $44,000 were accumulated by more than 850 donors.[6] Washington University, by contrast, attracted only twelve donors who provided a total amount of $38,000 in funding in return for these perpetual scholarships. All twelve donors belonged to the university’s first board of directors and, thus, had a direct interest in the success of their university.[7] While in the case of Oberlin College the desire for tuition-free education might have been the driving force of donations, in the case of Washington University it does not seem to have been a motivating factor since no one else beyond the circle of directly involved donors seemed to have bought such a perpetual scholarship. This might have been due to the high amount of the required donation. And in contrast to Western Reserve College and Oberlin College, the funds collected at Indiana University and Washington University were not put into an endowment that could have produced income but were invested in the (re)construction of university buildings.

While there was a definite need for university buildings, the decision to use the money for construction rather than for the creation of an endowment was a financial gamble with significant risks. No one could foresee how many students would be eligible to receive a tuition waiver in any give year over the next 25 years, 50 years or even eternity. And nobody could predict the tuition rate charged to students after 25, 50, or 100 years. At this time, the tuition waiver would have to be financed from general university funds. The university founders seem to have been aware of this challenge since they inserted into Article IV of the university constitution a provision according to which the number of recipients of tuition waivers based upon the 25-year perpetual scholarship “shall not, at any time, exceed fifty.”[8] And President William Greenleaf Eliot warned of the possible financial burden incurred by the new university already in his remarks in 1856: “By the statement now made it will be observed that the receipts from 32 scholarship foundations have been absorbed inBuildings_DwntwnCampus_17th and Washington Ave purchase of land and erection of the academy on 17th Washington Ave. Perhaps a small additional amount may be needed for completion of same. This is an unavoidable weight which the institution must carry and if all the scholarships were filled the cost of the education of their incumbents would equal a sum of more than $2000 per annum….I would recommend however that for the future the receipts from scholarships shall not be allowed to be absorbed in buildings or otherwise but that all funds from this source shall be securely invested so as to yield an income for the general expenses of education.”[9]Wge_S03-1859-scholarship-Mary-Institute
However, only two years later (in 1858), the university adopted again the selling of perpetual scholarships to obtain the $20,000 needed for the creation of the Female Seminary (Mary Institute). For this purpose perpetual scholarships worth fifteen years of free tuition were sold at $1000 each. Within just three months the necessary number of scholarships was sold.[10]

[1] Washington University Archives, “History of Washington University 1853-1953” by Alexander S. Langsdorf pp. 1-292 (manuscript), chapter 3, p. 2.

[2] Case Western Reserve University Archives, 60 MP Perpetual Scholarships, Western Reserve College Perpetual Scholarships.

[3] Oberlin College Archives, Office of the Treasurer, Series: Bookkeeping Records (Ledgers) 1833-1946, Subseries: 8. Scholarship Registers 1845-93, folder: Scholarships Purchased, 1845-50, Box 7.

[4] Indiana University Archives, newspaper clippings, folder: perpetual scholarships, article clip “Page from the Past …” from the Indiana Alumni Magazine June 1950, p. 11; James Albert Woodburn, History of Indiana University vol. 1: 1820-1902, Bloomington: Indiana University 1940, p. 236.

[5] Washington University Archives, James Thomas Craig, “Origin and History of the Collegiate Department of Washington University, 1853-1870” (MA thesis Washington University 1941), pp. 28-29.

[6] Oberlin College Archives, Office of the Treasurer, Series: Bookkeeping Records (Ledgers) 1833-1946, Subseries: 8. Scholarship Registers 1845-93, folder: Scholarships Purchased, 1845-50, Box 7.

[7] Craig, “Origin and History of the Collegiate Department”, p. 36.

[8] Craig, “Origin and History of the Collegiate Department”, p. 28.

[9] Washington University Archives, Ralph Morrow Papers Box 01, p. 25.

[10] Washington University Archives, Treasurer’s Office (Bartlett, Engler, Zumbalen & Kotany) 1858-1949, Series 02: Box 01: (Mary Institute), Folder: Mary Institute (Lucas Place).

Photo Credits

Photo of Thomas Adam (courtesy of Thomas Adam0

1854, Charter and Constitution, Washington Institute in St. Louis, the first publication from Washington University

Academic Hall, the first building completed on the University’s original downtown campus (WU Photographic Services Collection – Buildings, Folder: Downtown Campus)

Scholarship Certificate for Mary Institute, 1864 (William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers, S03, B01, Folder: 1859 12 September. Certificate of Scholarship to Mary Institute)

Travel Grant info:

Dr. Adam is a recipient of one of the Department of Special Collections Travel Grants, a program that started in 2009 and provides financial support for faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and independent scholars to visit any of the five units of the Department of Special Collections: Film and Media Archive, Manuscripts, Modern Graphic History Library, Rare Books, and University Archives.  Applications are accepted from January to March, with announcements of recipients in May.  For more information, please contact the Department of Special Collections at

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