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Lincoln Hall Project

Education’s New Dawn

The Growing Popularity of College

The opening of Lincoln Hall in 1911 came during a defining moment at the University of Illinois. It was a progressive era for education, as more and more people regarded it as necessary for a stable and yet rapidly expanding society that needed educated citizens. As a result, universities were growing as never before.

The proportion of young adults attending college in 1911 was still low—less than 10 percent of the college-age population in America went to college at that time—but the trend was pointing ever upward. Between 1870 and 1920, the number of higher education institutions doubled to almost 1,050, and national college enrollment doubled between 1890 and 1910 to 300,000.

Photo of early Quad

The reasons are many. New measures such as compulsory school attendance and tax-funded high schools led to an explosion in the number of high schools and the number of young men and women eligible for college. Meanwhile, modern social sciences and other academic disciplines were on the rise, and federal and state assistance to higher education increased as universities proved they could produce graduates with practical skills and new insights.

College lore was growing, and stories such as Owen Johnson’s popular 1912 novel Stover at Yale, which depicted undergraduate life, fueled the interest. Universities made themselves more appealing by such measures as discarding prescribed curriculums in favor of electives. At the U of I, offerings advanced in part because residents felt their land-grant school should be just as good as the new John D. Rockefeller-founded University of Chicago.

Photo of 1910 class

How was the U of I faring in 1911? In many ways, it was beating national trends. Alumni who returned to the U of I campus just a few years after graduation said they hardly recognized it for all the expansion. The University’s growth during the early 20th century was punctuated by the construction of some of its most iconic buildings and enrollment that increased by more than 600 percent between 1890 and 1911. The U of I’s reputation grew, also.

I like the way the students put their heart into their work in the University of Illinois,” wrote author Edwin Slosson in his widely read 1910 book, Great American Universities. “Their studies are to them not a thing apart from their real life, but a part of it. They take pride in their profession; they put sentiment into it and get amusement out of it.”

This is a profile of the U of I from the student’s perspective when Lincoln Hall was being built. It’s also a look back at the students themselves.


Sources: University of Illinois Archives; Winton Solberg, professor emeritus of history, University of Illinois; Timothy Cain, assistant professor of educational organization and leadership, University of Illinois; Great American Universities, by Edwin Emery Slosson. (Photos courtesy of U of I Archives.)