Beyond the Counterculture: Rethinking College in the ’60s

Beyond the Counterculture: Rethinking College in the ’60s

Going to College in the Sixties by John R. Thelin

FROM THE END of World War II to 1960, undergraduate student enrollments increased by 45 percent. They doubled again by the 1970s, eventually reaching eight million. Flat-footed by this demographic spike, academic leaders sought to remake the academy of the 1950s, which had emphasized research and graduate training at the expense of the undergraduate college. As a result, confident but paternalistic institutions that generally neglected their undergraduates gave way to an overloaded system that nervously managed them — setting the stage for the perpetually besieged and intensively managed higher education system we see today.

John Thelin tells this story of rising enrollments and growing administrations in his new book, Going to College in the Sixties. In doing so, he joins an ever-expanding list of historians who urge us to abjure the hippie nostalgia that so often still defines the 1960s. He lifts campus protest out of its purple haze and relocates it amid the emerging trends of shifting undergraduate demographics and the data-driven expansion of university bureaucracy. This approach makes sense of our present far better than the more familiar tale of a student revolution that failed. Instead, he shows that ’60s students of all political stripes and demographic backgrounds participated in a historical shift that replaced one set of contradictions with another.


For the first half of the 1960s, it seemed like academic leadership might be equal to the demographic surge. As Thelin writes, “Their speeches, book-jacket photographs, and magazine covers exuded the demeanor of senior statesmen and seasoned diplomats who were not ruffled when facing big issues.” Planners like California’s Clark Kerr became regional celebrities, and their architects grabbed the spotlight too. Time’s September 6, 1963, cover celebrated UC Irvine’s “Vistas of the Future” and billed campus designer William Pereira (of Transamerica Pyramid fame) as “The Man with the Plan.”

Critical University Studies pioneer Christopher Newfield has heralded this era’s commitment to “mass quality education.” Thelin likewise presents it as a moment when planners felt confident they could cultivate excellence while educating the masses. In his rendition, however, optimism belies a contradiction that was baked into various states’ master plans. On the one hand, the period’s visionaries embraced an ideology of selectivity and prestige. On the other, they were impelled to increase undergraduate headcounts. As Thelin explains, the clash of these two imperatives would “come back to haunt a generation of university presidents, provosts, and deans between 1964 and 1970,” not least in the form of headline-grabbing student unrest.

As the system of higher education expanded nationally and admissions became more competitive, universities like Columbia and Harvard could trade increasingly on the selectivity of their undergraduate colleges. As those elite schools grew more exclusive, leaders like Kerr promoted tiered state systems with “flagships” to compete with the Ivies and a fleet of other options for everyone else. A new emphasis on standardized test scores allowed systems to sort students into institutional tiers. But students resented being reduced to test scores and grew impatient with crowded, slapdash facilities that states rapidly built out. (Thelin describes housing staff packing dorm rooms with extra bunks, undergraduates trying to learn in standing-room-only lecture halls, and new colleges opening with little more infrastructure than rented trailers.)

Confronted with these conditions, students recoiled at the indifference shown by faculty and administrators. “Time and again,” Thelin recounts, “student memoirs attest to some variation of the academic dean’s convocation remarks in which each freshman is told, ‘Shake hands with the classmate on your left. Shake hands with the classmate on your right. One of you will not be here for graduation in four years.’” In the frustration born of such insouciance, Thelin finds an underappreciated motive for dissent, one that united students across the political spectrum. In 1961, students at Valley State (now California State University, Northridge), tired of camping out to get into overcrowded classes, inscribed “I am not a number” on the computer cards they used to register. Such anecdotes recontexualize movement chestnuts like Mario Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech. When Savio inveighed against being “made into a product” by the university “machine,” he tapped into concerns shared by students not necessarily compelled by the Free Speech movement’s New Left, civil rights, and antiwar agendas.

This student discontent befuddled the master planners.

News clips and videos of college and university presidents of that era addressing groups of students asking questions about or protesting campus policies show presidents who were flustered and flabbergasted. They were incredulous that they were not necessarily beloved or heeded.

Too often they “overcorrected,” behaving as if protesters posed an existential threat. And that administrative miscalculation amplified the tendency of student protest to undermine confidence in institutions of higher education. Federal agencies, particularly those involved in national security, sidestepped campus controversies by withdrawing from the kinds of research collaborations that had fueled growth in the 1950s. Federal grant funding had helped establish universities as pillars of what Thelin calls “the knowledge industry.” Increasingly, however, parents, politicians, and business leaders joined students in viewing colleges with suspicion.

When students expressed frustration and rage at their reduction to numbers, administrators responded by collecting even more data about them. The “computing machines” processing course registration information also enabled institutions to track students via various metrics. In turn, that data tracking shaped the push for increasing students services. Counselors and advising professionals were hired at an ever-faster pace to grapple with the realization that administrators and professors did not understand undergraduates as well as they might have thought. Ironically, then, students protesting their reduction to numbers also ensured that new experts would be hired to use those numbers in understanding their needs and responding to their complaints.


Data collection, combined with student financial aid, also began to define a historically unprecedented role for the federal government in making undergraduate education more accessible for students from different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds. Thelin emphasizes the Higher Education Act of 1965, which outlined a federal project to support undergraduate education, especially for low-income students, but was not fully funded until 1972. He might also have mentioned that more intensive federal number crunching supported efforts to improve access to college. Federal data collection provided increasingly granular measures of student demographics over time. The first Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS) asked institutions in 1965–’66 to declare whether their entire student body was either “white” or “Black.” By the end of the 1970s, the survey counted students completing degrees using the array of race/ethnicity categories provided by the census, in addition to sex. Such data collection helped lay the groundwork for 1970s affirmative action programs, as well as Title IX.

The bottom line was that a regulatory apparatus and burgeoning student services emerged to manage student diversity and to reorient the institutional bureaucracy in ways that also allowed it to respond to federal policies. Having a diverse student body would eventually be seen as a positive, something schools might aggressively promote in their marketing. Yet, as Roderick Ferguson explains in The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minoritized Difference (2012), representations of inclusion did not always entail a meaningful redistribution of resources or authority. Thelin’s rendition of the ’60s prefigures this ambivalent outcome.

As civil rights agitation began to pry open campuses for students of color, those students also confronted sorting mechanisms that could severely limit their opportunities. Thelin echoes a now common critique of standardized testing (the linchpin of the tiered state systems) in observing that the merit it ratified tended to reinforce established privilege. He reminds us of the systemic quality of this privilege by observing that some of the period’s public high schools had the funding and wherewithal to provide excellent college preparation — for white students.

College football provides perhaps his strongest example of the new hierarchies institutionalized by a growing educational system that was more inclusive, if not always less racist. Nationally, the NCAA’s 1964–’65 football contract with NBC television enshrined an opposition between athletic haves and have-nots, creating something like the current distinction between “football schools” and those distinguished by primarily academic achievements. It also further distanced students from the management of campus sports (a long-term trend identified by Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education [2004]). Perhaps most disturbingly, big-time football underwrote the appalling exploitation of Black recruits, who found their academic progress sabotaged by the coaches who used them on the field.

Gender produced a distinct, but not unrelated, pattern of discrimination, in which white women were included, but undervalued. Nationally, women accounted for around 48 percent of undergraduate enrollments between 1963 and 1969. Female undergrads found academic success, as evidenced by high grade point averages and memberships in the Phi Beta Kappa honors society. Yet women’s dropout rates were high. Leadership positions, including those in student protest movements, were generally closed to them, and several elite schools remained determined to “Keep the damned women out!” Thelin observes that films like Where the Boys Are (1960) underscored that college mainly afforded young women opportunities to find husbands — a proposition often reinforced by campus dress codes and other regulations. Activism would change this in the 1970s.


As for the consequences of ’60s student dissent, Thelin is hardly the first to point out that “the counterculture became an audience and a market for a formidable counterculture capitalism, despite ideology and slogans about anti-materialism.” In college towns across the land, he observes, record stores, head shops, and purveyors of bell-bottoms displaced tweedy haberdasheries. The counterculture’s audience-making work, we would argue, amplified, rather than undercut, the university’s importance within “the knowledge industry.” Students did not merely purchase bell-bottoms, Jimi Hendrix records, and tickets to Easy Rider (1969). They were tastemakers and DIY culture-producers who seeded new styles. Commercialization of those styles made clear that higher education could support very different constituencies. In the same moment, universities did materials science for the Department of Defense and contributed cool to the entertainment conglomerates.

The great virtue of Thelin’s Going to College in The Sixties lies in reminding us that the college students who grooved to rock ’n’ roll also took SATs, registered for classes with punch cards, and were counted in myriad ways. This discordant ensemble of activities remade our higher education system by redefining undergraduate populations as the central problem universities needed to manage. At the beginning of the decade, optimistic master planners believed the student masses would test into tidy tiers. By decade’s end, university leaders confronted the reality that student populations were both more various and less compliant than their test scores indicated. For every student radical (on the left or right) who wanted to overturn the establishment there were plenty who hoped to master it. All types of students expected campuses to meet their needs and hoped to be treated with a modicum of respect. Under the increasingly leery gaze of parents, business leaders, and federal regulators, campus administrations learned that to serve as many students as possible while offending as few constituencies as possible would require tact, foresight, and — perhaps most of all — diligent data collection.


Mark Garrett Cooper is the co-author, with John Marx, of Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education (Columbia University Press, 2018).

John Marx is the co-author, with Mark Garrett Cooper, of Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education (Columbia University Press, 2018).

LARB Contributors

Mark Garrett Cooper is professor of film and media studies at the University of South Carolina and the coeditor of Rediscovering US Newsfilm: Cinema, Television, and the Archive (2018). He is co-author, with John Marx, of Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education (Columbia University Press, 2018).
John Marx is chair of the English Department at UC Davis and an American Council on Education Fellow at Mills College for 2018–’19. He is co-author, with Mark Garrett Cooper, of Media U: How the Need to Win Audiences Has Shaped Higher Education (Columbia University Press, 2018).


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