By Madeline Lea ’16
The Study of Education at Princeton was a unique project that evolved during post-World War II discussions of education at the University led by economics professor Frank W. Notestein. Professor Samuel S. Wilks of the mathematics department and Dean of the Faculty J. Douglas Brown ’19 were also involved. They asserted that a scientific study of education would provide hard data to support any changes to University admissions or curriculum. The project’s goal was “to examine as critically and systematically as possible all aspects of residential university life, including both instructional methods and programs and extracurricular activities, for their effect on the student’s intellectual, moral and physical development.” Faculty interest in the study was bolstered by President Harold W. Dodds’s wholehearted support and the assistance of University Trustee General Frederick H. Osborn, Class of 1910.
Brown, Notestein, and Wilks developed the original proposal, arguing that the project had potential significance “not only to Princeton, but to the entire field of university education.” The study would replace grand assumptions about university education with quantifiable facts and could potentially “bring into view an entirely new horizon of educational accomplishment [and] should be a grand experiment in self-appraisal.”
Dodds appointed people from every part of the University community to the study’s advisory and executive committees. He felt that if the study were to be successful, it required input from faculty, staff, and administration. Cornell University professor Frederick F. Stephan, well known for his work in statistical analysis, was invited to direct the study, which was funded by a five-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation.
The study investigated all aspects of student life, including the preceptorial system and extracurricular activities. Staff members conducted fieldwork by going to campus meetings, leading small student discussion groups, and reviewing records from every department. The study team attended precepts and attempted to determine if this system was an effective teaching tool and whether students were participating fully and, if not, why. Professor Stephan, however, quickly realized that the study could only answer part of the question, for it was only taking the viewpoint of the University. If the study were to benefit everyone, it needed to include a dialogue with individual students that would allow the students to articulate their role in their educational experience.
In the fall of 1950, 55 members of the Class of 1954 were selected for the 1954 Advisee Project. These students were to be interviewed before they came to Princeton and questioned throughout their freshman year. Dr. S. Roy Heath ’39 of the Department of Psychology directed the Advisee Project. During the first year, Heath set up meetings with the students, faculty, and University administration. At the end of the year, he determined that the study should continue until the students graduated. Heath became the faculty advisor to 36 of the students and met with them regularly. It was believed that this four-year study, paired with the larger analysis of life at Princeton, would help determine the effectiveness of higher education at the University.
Results of the Advisee Project were published in the January 20, 1956, edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. The article “Student Characters,” detailed the personality model developed by Heath. The results of this study were later expanded in Heath’s book The Reasonable Adventurer: A Study of the Development of Thirty-Six Undergraduates at Princeton (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964). The title of this work came from the personality that experienced “a deeply satisfying life in college.”
The Study of Education at Princeton was scheduled to be completed in 1952. After Heath published the results of the Advisee Project, The Daily Princetonian ran a two-part story to investigate the status of the study, which was four years overdue. When interviewed for the story, Professor Stephan told the reporter that he was “kind of tired of making predictions” and refused to say when the project would be completed. He commented that the study was asking some difficult questions and not designed to simply meet a deadline.
Before his retirement in 1957, President Dodds hoped to provide the Carnegie Corporation with a report detailing the study’s activity during the five-year Carnegie grant (1947-1952); unfortunately, the study team was unable to provide this information. In the summer of 1957 President Robert F. Goheen wrote the president of the Carnegie Corporation, noting that “it is difficult to pin-point the causes which have led to many man-hours devoted to this Study of Education at Princeton to return, as yet, so little of a meaningful yield.” President Goheen hoped that a reorganization of the Department of Psychology would result in some tangible results. However, the study was terminated at the end of that year. A draft of the final report, dated June 11, 1957, is located in President Goheen’s records. This short summary of the study’s activities was not forwarded to the Carnegie Corporation.
Related Sources on the Study of Education at Princeton:
Frederick H. Osborn Papers, 1941-1963 (AC322) and undergraduate alumni file (AC104, Box 366)
Related Sources on the 1954 Advisee Project:
Heath, S. Roy. The Reasonable Adventurer: A Study of the Development of Thirty-six Undergraduates at Princeton. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964).
Several articles appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly related to professor Heath’s Advisee Project. A partial list of relevant articles is listed below.
“55 Who Came to Princeton.” Princeton Alumni Weekly. October 20, 1950, p. 7-8.
“The Underclass Years.” Princeton Alumni Weekly. October 16, 1953, p. 8-10.
“Four Years Changes: A Psychology Professor Charts the Evolving Personalities of a Sample Group of Students.” Princeton Alumni Weekly. October 21, 1955, p. 8-10
“Look Back 25 Years Later.” Princeton Alumni Weekly. May 7, 1979, p. 30-35.
“The X, Y, Z Factor in Admissions, and Prospects for Marriage.” Princeton Alumni Weekly. March 24, 1980, p. 16-18.
This post was originally written by Nancy M. Shader in 2003 for our old website. It has been revised and expanded here by Madeline Lea ’16 as part of our launch of our new website.