A small and relatively little-known college for most of its history, Parsons is now remembered primarily for its last two decades of existence, when the school underwent a dramatic expansion and curriculum revision that brought it national attention. This experient in higher education, dubbed the "Parsons Plan," was the brainchild of Millard G. Roberts, who was the college's president from 1955 to 1967. The Plan saw Parson's enrollment mushroom from fewer than 400 to more than 5,000, but also resulted in the school's eventual loss of accreditation and ultimate collapse.
Parsons College was named for Lewis B. Parsons, a wealthy New York merchant who died in 1855 and left much of his estate as an endowment for an institution of higher learning in Iowa. The executors of Parsons' estate considered a number of possible locations for the school before choosing a tract of land just north of Fairfield. The college opened in 1875, with a single building on the campus; the physical plant gradually grew as supporters made gifts and bequests for additional facilities. A fire destroyed the main building, but a 1905 gift from Andrew Carnegie made it possible to rebuild.
Until 1955, the college was like many other small colleges in the Midwest. Its history was unexceptional and its reputation was purely local. For more than 75 years Parsons grew slowly, accepting anyone who wanted to come, primarily local residents, and accumulating little endowment and many deficits.
In 1955, the trustees appointed Millard G. Roberts, a Presbyterian minister from New York City, as president of the college. Although he had no experience in educational administration, the trustees believed that he had the ability to promote the college, raise more money from donors, attract more students, and possibly manage the school more efficiently.
Roberts quickly instituted a 15-Year Plan to develop the college. Throughout his 12-year presidency, he attracted both positive and negative attention. Chief among the positive consequences was a huge increase in enrollment, which, in turn, made it possible for the college to implement other aspects of the Plan.
The Parsons Plan took a many-pronged approach to higher education:
As a result of these innovations, enrollment skyrocketed, growing from 350 to 5000 in a few years. By 1968, the enrollment topped 5,000 students. At one time, transfers made up 43% of the student body and never dropped lower than 22%. Most of the student body came from the upper Mid-West, the Northeast and the West Coast of the US, with a small number from other countries. Much of the enrollment growth was driven by the military induction policies in the 1960s that allowed deferments to undergraduate college students.
Female students at Parsons were outnumbered 4 to 1. Despite the gender mismatch, students enjoyed a full and active social life, with 12 national fraternities and four national sororities.
Roberts instituted a dramatic building plan, creating low-cost housing units, as well as an innovative new library and a student union. He also created the college's own construction company, thus putting money back into the school's own coffers and lowering costs.
The first football game played at Parsons was on September 16, 1893, against Elliot Business College of Burlington, Iowa. Parsons won by a score of 70-0. This monumental win promoted the building of Parsons' own stadium and field for their 1894 season. In 1966, a new 5,000-seat stadium was built on the campus. Iowa Wesleyan College was Parsons' main rival for 70 years. The two teams played each other 60 times. Parsons won 34 of the games, and Iowa Wesleyan won 21 games.
On June 3, 1966, Life Magazine published an article that was critical of the college and its underlying philosophy. As a result of that article and growing concerns about the viability of the Parsons Plan and Dr. Roberts' leadership, Parsons College began a period of decline from which it never recovered. The most serious blow came in 1967, when the North Central Association withdrew the college's accreditation. Roberts was fired in the ensuing turmoil, and in the following years the school's enrollment plunged from 5,000 to 1,500. Though accreditation was later regained, the upheaval of the late 1960s had fatally destabilized the underpinnings of the college.
In June 1973, in its 99th year, Parsons College closed for the last time. All records and transcripts were sent to the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The campus was sold to adherents of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and it became the home of Maharishi International University, now known as Maharishi University of Management.
Despite the fact that the historic core of the campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nearly all the old Parsons College buildings were bulldozed, without permits, beginning in the 1990s. They were replaced by new buildings that adhered to Maharishi Sthapatya Veda principles of architecture.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Roberts attempted to expand the Parsons Plan to other colleges, specifically:
These "satellite" schools initially used the Parsons Plan academic model, and their establishment was supported logistically and financially by the main Parsons campus. All, however, suffered from inadequate funding and accreditation issues, and as Parsons faltered in the late 1960s, the reputations of the satellite schools suffered by association. The last of the Parsons satellite schools closed in 1975.