Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education in Higher Education (EdD)

Degree Level



Rehabilitation, Human Resources and Communication Disorders


Michael S. Hevel

Committee Member

Ketevan Mamiseishvili

Second Committee Member

John W. Murry, Jr.


History of Higher Education, Low Socioeconomic Status, Mental Health, White Women, Women's Higher Education


Typically historical inquiries in higher education have been centered on privileged individuals from wealthier backgrounds who had the opportunity of attending primarily prestigious institutions. The experiences of college women from lower to middle class socioeconomic backgrounds have been for the most part ignored. This dissertation explores how socioeconomic backgrounds shaped the experiences of college women from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, focusing on lower class students. With no universal financial aid program, the majority of these women were from families who could afford to pay tuition. Women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds did attend college, but their individual experiences are often missing in the literature. The historiography chapter explores how previous historians have considered the impact of socioeconomic status on the experiences of White women in higher education concerning the purpose of higher education for women, demographics, curriculum, the extracurriculum, and careers after college. Generally, the purpose of women’s higher education depended on the type of socioeconomic student that the institution attracted; wealthier college women had more options in college and were training to be wealthy wives and less wealthy women had fewer options and were training for paid employment.

While little is known about these women from less advantaged backgrounds, partly because they were in the minority and partly because they are not well represented in the primary sources that exist, there are two women included in this study who give insight into the experience of being a lower to middle socioeconomic status student in college from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. M. Madeline Southard struggled with financial insecurity during college, which led to food insecurity and caused anxiety that manifested in decreased mental health. She relied on her Christian faith as the main coping mechanism to alleviate the struggles of being a low socioeconomic student. The chapter on K. Gretta Ordway, describes how a middle-class student managed to attend a prestigious and expensive institution in an era before government-funded financial aid. Attending college created a financial hard in her family, and Ordway had to navigate the often-unclear institutional practices related to financial aid. Being excluded in campus life due to being a less wealthy student at a primarily wealthy college also contributed to mental health issues. These college women went to college a decade apart and in different institutions, but they are connected because of their struggle to pay for their college educations. Their experiences in higher education have the ability to shed light on the current situation students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face today.