Posted in education, Historical fiction, schools

Writing about higher education in historical fiction

If you’re writing a historical with collegiate characters, research and accuracy are of vital importance. There are so many things about higher education that have radically changed over time, and as I found out the hard way (luckily pre-publication), you can’t assume even a seemingly minor, basic detail was always the same.

Important things to keep in mind as you research and write:

1. Start and end dates of semesters. Because I assumed the autumn semester always started in early September or late August, I now have a bunch of annoying edits to look forward to in Dream Deferred. Even as recently as a few decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for universities to begin in late September or early October. The spring semester likewise sometimes began in February.

2. Graduation dates. If you use actual dates in your books like I do, you need to know exactly when commencement was.

3. Commencement details. Beyond the date, it’s important to know, e.g., who the speaker was, what s/he spoke about, how many graduates there were, what the weather was like, if the ceremony had to be moved to an alternate location due to rain, noteworthy events in the program, school traditions, etc.

4. The dates and events of orientation for first-year students and transfers. Some schools had an entire week, while others only had a weekend or a few days in the middle of a week. Did the Dean speak at a luncheon? Were there dances? Sporting events? Campus tours? Singalongs?

5. Were your characters’ majors offered in those years? Many university websites have history sections on the pages for their departments. Some are more thorough than others. Columbia, Vassar, and the University of Minnesota at the Twin Cities are among the schools I’ve found with excellent information. If it’s not available there, try searching archives of the student newspapers, which often mention students’ majors. You don’t want to have, e.g. a fine arts student attending a school that only offered art history (if that), or an engineering student attending a school that was solely a teachers’ college or theological school.

6. Did the institution have a graduate school in those years? If so, what programs were offered? Bryn Mawr, for example, used to have a much more extensive graduate school, whereas today it only offers six master’s programs.

7. Cycling back to #5, many schools started out as training colleges for teachers or clergy. They weren’t all-purpose universities with departments in the liberal arts and STEM.

8. Co-education is fairly recent. Some schools admitted women to graduate programs but not undergraduate. Others were exclusively male, and often had women’s auxiliaries. If your story is set before the late 19th century, there’s a good chance women weren’t allowed to study there at all, or had to gain special permission through petitions, character references, and stellar scores on exams.

Bettisia Gozzadini (1209–1261), alumna of the University of Bologna and the first woman to teach at a university

9. Women’s schools only arose in the second half of the 19th century. Though they initially catered to daughters of privilege, their admission standards were very academically rigourous.

10. School officials acted in loco parentis until the late 1960s. This entailed things like strict curfews, having to meet members of the opposite sex in common areas and under a chaperone’s watchful eyes, women being expelled if they were caught alone with men, dress codes, and forbidding freedom of speech and association.

11. Tuition cost much less than it does today, even accounting for inflation. New York City’s public schools were also free for qualified students until the disastrous open admissions policy of the 1970s.

12. The location of some schools changed over time. Perhaps they needed a bigger campus as their student body expanded; a fire necessitated rebuilding; or they wanted to relocate to a more desirable part of town.

13. The average age of university entrance historically was fourteen. Some students were as young as twelve. This wasn’t because kids were so much smarter in the old days, but rather because education was structured much differently, and high school didn’t exist.

14. Pre-requisites included plane geometry, algebra, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, and German. Many students attended prep schools so they could pass all these entrance exams.

15. Majors didn’t exist until the 19th century. Prior, everyone had the same mandated general course of study. If they were lucky, they could take a few electives.

16. Length of study varied by program. E.g., many degrees in nursing, architecture, and veterinary medicine took five years, while other programs took only three.

17. The Ivies weren’t selective until the 1920s. Prior, any man from a well-connected, wealthy WASP family was admitted. Once non-WASPs from less privileged backgrounds began applying in large numbers, they developed a discriminating admissions policy, including questions about religion, parents’ birthplaces and jobs, and mother’s birth surname. Applicants also had to attach a photo and do an interview to further suss out “undesirables.”

18. Many private schools had a numerus clausus, a quota designed to severely limit Jews, Catholics, and African-Americans. Columbia created Seth Low Junior College for their “excess” Jewish applicants, Isaac Asimov among them.

Some sources I’ve used:

Columbia Spectator
Barnard Bulletin
Barnard Magazine
Barnard yearbooks
Essays and firsthand materials about Barnard’s history
The Minnesota Daily
Additional Minnesota Daily archives (some issues incomplete to date)
University of Minnesota Twin Cities Press Releases
University of Minnesota commencement programs
University of Toronto Archives
Bryn Mawr catalogues and calendars
Sarah Lawrence student newspaper archives
Swarthmore archives and history
Hunter commencement programs
The New School archives and special collections
New York Times archives (Fully searchable international archive dating from 1690; needs a subscription, but can also be accessed through some library websites)
Nineteenth century U.S. newspapers (needs a subscription, but can also be accessed through some library websites)
Index of links to U.S. student newspapers (including high schools)
Index of links to Canadian student newspapers
Grand index of historical world newspaper links by region and special interest


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

One thought on “Writing about higher education in historical fiction

  1. This Ancestor Hunt website is so useful.

    And just one change would make your well-intentioned hist-fic into a speculative fic or an alternative universe.

    Especially the point about commencement.

    I remember Helen Keller starting her Cambridge School for Young Ladies – and her first couple of years at Radcliffe – in late September/early October.


    And a point about Radcliffe being the Harvard Annex in the late 1890s and early 1900s would be remiss of me not to make. [see the one about women’s colleges]

    Good point about teachers’ colleges and seminaries.

    If someone was writing a histfic about Australian universities in particular – they would have to know when the colleges of advanced education and the Schools of were created; merged and ended.

    [They would also have Dawkins and Higher Education Contribution Scheme to deal with – and that is probably another thing for writers in general – the economics of all this].

    [which you did deal with with tuition. Reading INSIDE OUT I was so surprised that there was tuition – I thought that was coursework – it turns out it was the MONEY for the specialised education James was receiving – in the early days of the Education for All Handicapped Children act which modern people know as Individualised Disability Education Act].

    Really appreciated the information about the Seth Low Junior College and other overflow/numerus clasusus institutions.

    The three years v. four years thing.

    And the prereqs.

    I was able to find out a lot about Barnard and Columbia through a little magazine called THE UNDERGRADUATE TIMES [which I used to read in 2013 and 2014] and THE HIGH SCHOOL TIMES – from contemporary and prospective students.

    As for the architecture and five years – it should have taken one of my characters *six* years to complete his – because he was a terrible student.

    Also check out guilds [this is a point for UK universities and professional degrees].

    Also I am thinking of all the differences in Scottish education from English/Welsh and Northern Irish [and again with the Republic of Ireland].

    Bologna Process was not around and degrees were not usually harmonised.

    Also the point about how qualifications DO NOT usually transfer around the world – especially if you’re a doctor/lawyer/engineer from Asia or Africa.

    Spring semesters beginning in February – when I wrote about them they began in mid-March [or the young lady concerned came a few weeks late because she was a transfer student].

    Many of the same points apply to boarding and other residential arrangements in education.

    Especially the pastoral care aspects post-in loco parentis.

    So the Ivies have only been selective for a hundred years!

    [We will have to speak about selective and extremely selective schools as well as their opposites].

    I really got to know some aspects of US education following a creative writing/classical studies student around whose alma mater was Oberlin.

    [and there was a journalist-person who had graduated from Swarthmore who I knew in the early 2000s – she was a moderator for the Reactive Attachment Disorder forum].

    Liked by 1 person

Share your thoughts respectfully

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s