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   THE LAB SCHOOL STORY

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THE INTER WAR YEARS: 1920-1940



As the nineteen twenties began the ISTC community looked back over the previous decade with a mixture of pride and relief. It had benefitted from a much-needed expansion of campus facilities, including a designated building for its Training School; undertaken new and important instructional responsibilities; and enjoyed unprecedented visibility across the state and nation as it launched innovative work on behalf of Iowa’s thousands of rural schools. Yet, it had also experienced the trauma of a threat to its survival as a four-year college; new legislative requirements for public education which, initially at least, severely strained its ability to effectively meet state expectations; a fractured relationship with Cedar Falls that temporarily compromised its capacity to provide practical teacher training; and a world war and influenza pandemic that disrupted campus life in innumerable ways. 


Despite these crises, Iowa State Teachers College entered the nineteen twenties in many ways more secure and better prepared than ever before to play an expanding role in state and national teacher preparation. While the years between the end of the Great War and the outbreak of the Great Depression were not without some serious challenges, they generally lacked the drama and trauma of the previous decade. 


In the bleak years of the Depression people frequently recalled the twenties as an era of unprecedented prosperity, but as is sometimes the case current realities often obscured the complexities of the past. It is true that measured statistically and strictly in material terms the people of the United States as a whole enjoyed the highest standard of living ever achieved by any nation, but many Americans shared only marginally, if at all, in the fruits of that prosperity. There were sectors of the economy seriously distressed long before the disaster of the nineteen thirties. One of the most significant of these was agriculture, which had been highly profitable during the war but plunged into a serious post-war depression from which it did not fully recover until World War II. Nationally, farm income dropped from approximately seventeen billion dollars in 1919 to around ten and a half billion in 1929. Since farming was the mainstay of Iowa’s economy many of the state’s residents often found themselves struggling financially, which meant that state revenues were tight and unpredictable. Consequently, state legislators were conservative with their appropriations including those for higher education. 


After a rather generous appropriation immediately following the war, which facilitated a substantial salary increase for faculty, throughout the remainder of the nineteen twenties allocations for ISTC were modest at best and generally failed to keep pace with increased enrollment and the evolving expectations of higher education. As President Seerley prepared to retire in 1928, he could look back over a decade which had thus far seen little increase in faculty salaries or appropriations for instructional services despite the fact that enrollments had grown, and the teaching staff had increased about twenty-five percent. The administration and faculty, accustomed to lean times through much of the college’s history, maintained and improved educational offerings by striving for greater efficiency and carefully managing the resources available through such measures as consolidating some departments, eliminating expendable courses, and redirecting funds toward areas of greatest need. Consequently, when President Seerley stepped down, he could take satisfaction in the fact that he left to his successor a respected institution with a balanced budget.

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