History Of Higher Education Essay

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The history of higher education is one of expanded choice and opportunities for students as well as innovative delivery systems such as the correspondence school, distance learning, and Internet information retrieval. Diversity through the years has expanded as federal court decisions have found it to be a compelling state interest. From higher education enrollment limited to the few to egalitarianism, higher education has become a major influence in U.S. society. With nearly 18 million students and over 631,000 faculty members, higher education continues to reflect the ever-changing needs of society.

Historical Background

Higher education emerged from the works of scribes and theological schools. Ancient scholars, peripatetic teachers, imparted knowledge through lectures. Groups of individuals would follow teachers, often inspired by their worldviews. Priests, scribes, apprentices were teachers and repositories of knowledge. Written works were developed and continually added to with observation and reflection.

Teachers were protected by ruling classes who found cadres of literate people indispensable. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle taught and recorded philosophical views of the world. Egypt, Greece, and Italy were seats of early teaching and learning. Oratory, dialectic, and rhetoric were much prized in education. These early educational contributions have been passed down to our time. Aristotle’s Lyceum and Plato’s Academy were early models of higher education.

From the fourth century BCE to the eleventh century CE, tribal conflicts limited educational efforts. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, education of the clergy in their own schools was encouraged. The Cathedral School of Notre Dame became the University of Paris. With protection from kings and the pope, the University of Paris became an autonomous institution. Guilds or groups of scholars or masters and students provided the corporate structure for an autonomous institution. Such autonomy continues with faculty in charge of curriculum and admissions.

Bologna became a center for the study of law, with student guilds or collegia forming the organizational structure of the university. Renaissance humanism was often not well received by established universities. The Reformation had mixed outcomes and consequences, including rabid sectarianism and a high degree of institutional stagnation. However, both occurred in a period of cultural and intellectual ferment that led to an expansion of higher education.

Origins of Universities

Continental universities provided the model for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England. The rites and rituals of Oxford and Cambridge were incorporated in America’s universities and colleges. Harvard College, although more of a secondary school than a college, provided education for theologians, teachers, and government leaders.

Harvard was founded in 1636, William and Mary in 1693, Yale in 1701, College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1746, King’s College (Columbia University) in 1754, College of Rhode Island (Brown) in 1765, Queens College (Rutgers) in 1766, and Dartmouth in 1769—all as private religious institutions. The curriculum based on continental universities was the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy).

The Supreme Court in the Dartmouth College case of 1819 ruled that the college’s charter was a valid contract. Dartmouth was a private institution not subject to public control. Control, financing, and management of private institutions of higher education became the domain of boards of trustees. The ruling led to an expansion of private higher education and to protecting private institutions from legislative interference.

Early Women’s Colleges

Women’s colleges were founded in the nineteenth century. Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary was founded in 1837 and Georgia Female College, later Wesleyan College, opened in 1839. They were private schools that provided women access to traditional academic disciplines. Vassar provided a transitional curriculum with a focus on women’s conversational skills, feminine arts, and a classical course of study.

Ohio’s Oberlin College, founded in 1833, was one of the first coeducational colleges that offered a traditional baccalaureate degree. There was fear that women could become unsexed, lose their charm and gentleness, become unmarriageable, and be subject to nervous breakdowns with too much learning or too strenuous studies. The American Women’s Education Association founded in 1852 stimulated the development and expansion of higher education for women. The curriculum was based on the liberal arts and the classical tradition. Harvard faculty began to offer courses for women in 1879. Near the turn of the twentieth century, Harvard Annex became Radcliffe College for women. Early women’s colleges often offered courses for teaching, an early career choice for women. To meet the growing demand for teachers, Normal Schools were created often becoming state teachers’ colleges. As the demand for professional schools grew, state teachers’ colleges became state universities offering an expanded curriculum.

Political activism of the suffragists led to the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing women voting rights in 1920. Bryn Mawr organized a summer school for working women in 1921. Women’s participation in higher education continued to grow.

An Expansion

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 authorized two full townships in each new state to be reserved for a university. The Northwest Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the support of schools within a township, and the 1787 act became precedents for land grants to the states for public schools and universities. The demand for expanded education curricula led to the Morrill Act in 1862, which provided for Land Grant Colleges for agriculture, the trades, and education.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 gave Blacks American citizenship. Black colleges developed in the South through the efforts of Booker T. Washington, who received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School was a model for Black education. The Morrill Act of 1890 required the states to make public education available to African Americans. Seventeen Southern states had separate land-grant colleges for African Americans. Eventually every state had a land-grant college.

In 1828 Yale professors found that what is ultimately worth knowing in college were the liberalizing, liberating liberal arts. In 1945, the Harvard faculty in General Education for a Free Society provided a framework for meeting the common needs of an undergraduate education.

John Hopkins University opened in 1876, providing an impetus for the development of graduate programs based on a German research model. Daniel Coit Gilman, a Yale graduate, was the first president of Johns Hopkins. At Johns Hopkins, faculty and students were required to do research and to seek new knowledge through scientific investigation. This provided a model for research universities.

There were periodic efforts to develop common standards for college admission, and in 1892, the National Education Association appointed a Committee of Ten including Harvard President Charles Eliot to make recommendations about common high school curricula. The result was the Carnegie Unit, which provided for standard units of credit for high school subjects and college admissions.

In 1869, Harvard president Charles Eliot broke with tradition and led the development of electives in higher education. The elective system provided opportunities for professors to pursue their professional interests and for students to be able to choose their courses for career interests. Academic departments were formed around these interests and universities offered an expanded curriculum based on student and professor interests.

Postwar Change

With the GI Bill of 1944 (the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act), thousands of returning veterans enrolled in higher education. The GI Bill proved a success. Fears of flooding universities with unqualified, unprepared students disappeared as returning veterans proved to be good students and contributors to their communities. Legislation for war veterans has been extended through the years.

President Harry Truman formed the Commission on Education in 1947. The commission recommended expanding higher education through the junior or community college level. Currently many community colleges are moving to four-year degree institutions or becoming satellites of university systems.

American higher education reflects the Zeitgeist or spirit of the times in which it exists. Jeffersonian democracy focused on meritocracy, while Jacksonian democracy stressed egalitarianism. As the nation grew, colleges reflected a spirit of progressivism. State universities during the 1900s were expected to perform a service function. Dealing with state problems and issues became an important goal of university missions. The University of Wisconsin developed the idea of using the institution’s formidable resources to deal with public problems, needs, and issues. Higher education theorists continue to debate the role of professional schools versus liberal arts colleges.

Current Directions


With technological advances, students and faculty are accessing library and resource information through the Internet. Computer access to information continues to expand as more knowledge bases are on the World Wide Web. With the Internet era, traditional universities and colleges compete with new online distance-learning programs offered by nontraditional universities like University of Phoenix. Students are able to complete courses and degrees anywhere through online networks.

In response, colleges and universities have expanded their distance-learning undergraduate and graduate degree programs. With more information accessed through the Internet, higher education institutions place greater emphasis on ready access to computers in libraries, and the traditional card catalogue has been replaced. The Library of Congress and a growing library of the classics and academic knowledge provide speed as well as accuracy in accessing information. With increasing focus on collaborative research, faculty can network with each other through the Internet. Flash cards or jump drives make it easy to carry information anywhere.

Equity And Access

Economic and social justice advocates seek greater opportunities for minorities and people of color. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) led to the integration of higher education institutions. Equity in and access to higher education institutions continue to be expanded through political activism. With an expanded multicultural population, special efforts are made to provide remedial training in basic subjects including English for English language learners, low-income students, and students at risk.

In Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that the state has an interest in diversity that may be served by consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. Several decades later, in two 2003 Michigan cases, Gratz v. Bolinger and Grutter v. Bolinger, the high court again upheld the importance of diversity as a compelling state interest in higher education. Recruiting minorities, women, and people of color as students and faculty is a major goal of national accrediting agencies. Universities have minority recruiting offices to increase minority student enrollment.

Student retention in higher education is a major concern, and efforts are made to provide support services to retain students, particularly in the freshman years. William Bowen, president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, president of Harvard, conducted a research study to determine the long-term consequences of considering race in college admissions. Their conclusion was that with mentoring and support, minority students could perform well in higher education and make major contributions in their chosen careers and in their communities. Diversity was found to enrich the college environment for both learners and teachers.


A continuing concern in higher education is adequate funding for institutions. University presidents and boards of trustees face the problem of economic cycles that affect their enrollment as well as their ability to recruit highly skilled faculty, update facilities, and expand Internet access throughout the campuses. Private universities’ tuition costs require special efforts to recruit, retain, and provide scholarships to maintain diverse student bodies. Since the early days at Harvard, special efforts have been made to recruit low-income, at-risk students. That effort continues.

State university and college systems continue to compete in state legislatures for adequate funding for faculty and staff salaries and for recruiting low-income, at-risk students. Tuition increases can meet only a part of the higher education budget. State legislative and private funding is essential for quality education.

Academic freedom is vital in a free society, and university officials and boards of trustees work to assure academic freedom when confronted with internal or external ideological conflicts.


In research universities, faculty members are expected to keep up their academic productivity through peer-reviewed publication, grant acquisition, and recognition in their professional fields. To assure such productivity, senior faculty are often subject to five-year peer review. If they fall short, efforts are made to provide support, encouragement, and mentoring to increase productivity. University investment in the professorate continues to expand as inflation requires more fundraising. Retaining top quality professors is essential in attracting the best students, and in universities’ promotion efforts.

Lifelong Learning

Most universities have programs for lifelong learning. These can be through correspondence, weekend sessions, distance-learning programs or lectures and seminars. With increased longevity, senior citizens are provided with a variety of programs, courses, and lectures for interest areas. Adult education programs have expanded through the years.

Federal Involvement

In recent years, federal legislation has provided increased civil rights protection for women, minorities, and disabled students. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided funds for science, math, and modern foreign language education, as well as other subjects. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin. The Higher Education Act of 1965 and 1998 amendments provided for grants and contracts to identify qualified individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to prepare them and provide support for their higher-education programs. In addition, the act provides for motivating and preparing students for doctoral programs.

First-generation American college students are given financial support and mentoring support. Talent Search is an effort to identify qualified students for postsecondary education. Upward Bound programs provide a variety of assistance for low-income, underrepresented, disadvantaged students in higher education. A variety of federal support programs have been developed for special needs students in higher education. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 bans sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal aid. Universities provide athletic opportunities and assure equal employment opportunities for women.

Then And Now

From the early religious and private colonial colleges to the elite colleges, higher education established its ability to adjust to historical influences and currents. The scholasticism of continental universities evolved into the traditional classical curriculum based on the trivium and quadrivium. Students and faculty gained more choice for their interest areas with expansion of the elective system. The Renaissance and Reformation eventually led to secularism in higher education.

State colleges and universities have offered service curricula to meet the needs of government, corporations, and individuals, for assistance with policy making, business development, and those with special needs. Prestige and public relations have been important student recruiters. State flagship universities have worked to achieve research status through faculty recruiting, fundraising, and scholarships to attract top performing students. In general, the challenge for higher education in the future will be to address issues involving greater equity and opportunity, as well as the challenges posed by an increasingly technologically oriented and global culture.


  1. Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (2000). The shape of the river: Long term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Eby, F. (1940). The history and philosophy of education ancient and medieval. New York: Prentice Hall.
  3. Hofstadter, R., & Smith, W. (1961). American higher education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Lucas, C. (1994). American higher education. New York: St. Martin’s.
  5. Rudolph, F. (1965). The American university. New York: Vintage Books.
  6. Veblen, T. (1954). The higher learning in America. Stanford, CA: Academic Reprints.

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