Every year it seems the all-around quality – especially academics – of the new freshman class improves. Students come better prepared for the challenges of the classroom. Rose-Hulman draws an applicant pool of 3100 from which a class of 450 is selected, an enviable position. SAT scores place Rose students in the 90th percentile nationally. Recent profile data show that only 25% are first generation college students. Less than a third of our new matriculants can call small town America or the farm home. The majority come from outside Indiana, with most of the states having some representative.
The students who arrived in 1883 were a little different from those of today in one important area. Each was taking a risk on a college with no track record and no reputation – certainly no Number One rating by U.S. News & World Report.
That first year, 58 were invited to come to Entrance Examination Day. They were tested in five areas: algebra, arithmetic, grammar, geography, and history. The stated minimum was to be an average score of 60, but records show that “Admissions” was willing to make a few exceptions. Those with scores as low as 39 percent were passed to fill the seats of the new school.
There were 48 matriculants that first year and all were male. Of the 48, a whopping 37 came from Indiana, not much geographic diversity there. Illinois was home to six and Kentucky, Iowa, Michigan, and Massachusetts provided the rest. And it was a hometown body, with 23 calling Terre Haute home. Interestingly, though none were international, a number had parents who were immigrants.
Parents’ occupations were diverse, but different from those of today. To begin, nothing in the records indicates that anyone’s mother held a job outside the home. It is a fairly prosperous list of occupations. Six of the 48 were lawyers; five worked for the railroads in some capacity. Three owned milling operations and one a hotel. The odd ones that catch the eye are the two blacksmiths, harbor contractor, and coal dealer.
Most surnames appear to be English in origin with a solid smattering of German. Terre Haute had, at the time, a population that was heavily German and published two German newspapers. For first names there is nary a Jacob, Michael, Austin, Tyler, or Ryan – the most common names of today, according to recent survey. Opening day in March of 1883 a cry of “John” would have caused six heads to turn in response. Charles was the given name of five, Frank and William for four and three for William Henry – perhaps for Hoosier hero William Henry Harrison. Oscar, Ferdinand, and Adolph were represented too.
The choice of majors was slim in those days. mechanical engineering claimed the imagination of 44 students, with Civil Engineering picking up three and a lone Chemistry major, the son of President Thompson, a renowned “chemical engineer”. At the end of the fall semester the boys had earned an average of 71, a very low C—not much grade inflation in those days. These averages ranged from 47 for Oscar Bauer, who was encouraged to take a year off (he was 16) and mature a bit, which he did; to a high of 91 earned by Henry St. Clair Putnam, who had already earned a bachelor’s degree in law from Iowa in 1882.
The attrition rate was high. Approximately 44 percent of the boys failed to stay the course and earn a degree and nine individuals did not make it through the first two semesters, seven because of grades or behavior. Registrar notes tell us that the first declared CE major was expelled for immoral conduct “acknowledged before the faculty.” (Wouldn’t our enquiring minds like to know what he did?) Another particularly hapless scholar was examined by Prof. Waldo who stated the student “knew nothing and admitted as much.” He was asked “to retire,” and did so.
Perhaps the saddest departure of all was President Thompson’s own son, Lewis, who was also the youngest student at 15. The record states the he “withdrew … on account of the sickness and death of his father, President Charles O. Thompson.”
From alumni records we know that those who stayed and earned their degrees remained loyal to their fledgling alma mater. Some became professors; one became a doctor, and another a prestigious Fellow of the American Institute of America. Most were absorbed by American industry, often manufacturing and railroads, doing their part to build up the country.