Higher education has been a part of American society since before America was even an independent nation, with the first college (what is today known as Harvard) being founded in 1636, more than a century before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Despite such a long and storied history, few of us really know what went into establishing the higher education system that we know today. From pivotal figures in higher ed history to surprising facts about the development of colleges to dark secrets about our educational past, we’ve collected an engaging assortment of facts about the history of higher education in America that just might give you a new appreciation for your alma mater.
Back in the early days of higher education in America, there wasn’t much variety offered in college majors. You could train to work in a religious field, or, well, that was it. And it makes sense, as the first colleges in the U.S. were founded by religious denominations and created to serve them by producing young men for the ministry. Harvard was the first, but later Yale joined too, when the conservative Puritan ministers in Connecticut grew dissatisfied with the theology of Harvard, which they saw as being too liberal (that Harvard-Yale rivalry goes back to 1701). Princeton, The College of William & Mary, Brown, and Columbia were all also started as places of religious education.
Ben Franklin was among the first to suggest a program of study that wasn’t solely related to training clergy.
In 1749, Ben Franklin along with other Pennsylvania leaders started advocating for an innovative concept of higher education (at the time) that would teach students about the arts and provide them with practical skills for making a living and doing public service. Franklin published a famous essay entitled “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth” and would eventually purchase the land and buildings that would become the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin’s proposed program of study was to be short-lived, however, as the other trustees for the school were unwilling to implement most of his ideas and the school’s first provost soon turned the curriculum back toward the most traditional, religion-focused model.
Jefferson believed the state should be responsible for creating an educated populous and that the survival of the nation depended on the state’s success in educating the people. While he was a staunch supporter of free elementary education for all students, he also believed that students who exhibited talent or genius and whose parents were too poor to further their education should be given a free ride to college. Despite his best efforts, his proposals for free education were rejected, but his ideas did result in the establishment of one of the first public universities in the nation: The University of Virginia.
Jefferson is also responsible for supporting many of the standard collegiate ideas we still use today.
Enjoying that lecture? Jefferson was a big proponent of the lecture method of education that most professors use today, as it allowed more students to learn from a single professor. Looking forward to taking electives? Thank Jefferson. In 1778, Jefferson proposed a bill on “General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which resulted in the establishment of an elective system of study in the College of William and Mary and later in his own pet project, The University of Virginia. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that this would become common practice and even then with serious resistance. Jefferson’s other contributions to modern higher ed include: lack of denominational influence, emphasis on science, and embracing of practical learning.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, America had significantly more colleges than its much wealthier and populated ruling nation of England.
The original American colonies may not have had the population or the wealth of England, but they were rich in educational institutions. By 1775, there were nine chartered degree-granting colleges established in the colonies. In England, the only educational choices were Cambridge and Oxford, which may be a reflection of both different educational goals and the relatively larger landmass of the American colonies.
Compared to today, even when adjusted for inflation, college costs in the early days of higher education were fairly low. That still didn’t mean that everyone could head off to get a degree, however. Most families needed to keep young men home to work on farms and in family businesses and even those that didn’t often did not have the money to pay for courses at these schools, though they were not excessively priced. Scholarships were few and far between, leaving many students from poorer families unable to attend school, even if they had intellectual gifts. As a result, higher education was more often than not a luxury that only the elite could afford. To put things in perspective, at the start of the Revolutionary War only 750 of the 2 million inhabitants of the colonies were attending college. That’s just .03% of the population.
Most students today head to college after finishing high school, which means that most are 17 or 18 when they head off to college campuses (though the average age of students has risen steadily over the past decade). The education system was structured a bit differently in early centuries, with students spending much less time working their way through elementary and high school. This meant that many students were starting college in their mid-teens, often heading straight into college from preparatory schools associated with colleges and universities. It was not uncommon for college students to be as young as 13, an age that today would put students in middle school.
Today, only about 20% of universities and colleges are private, but in the 1700s and early 1800s, that figure was close to 100%. In fact, it was not until the early 1800s that access to public education at the elementary and high school levels was mandated and even later that public colleges became readily accessible.
Starting a college is hard, and without the cushy endowments that many schools enjoy today, many early schools were struggling to get by. As a result, during hard times early colleges in the U.S. were forced to accept payments such as cotton, sheep, pewter, and food rather than hard currency.
In the early days of higher ed, the majority (if not all) of colleges were private, elite, and highly exclusive. Starting in 1840, politicians began calling for the creation of agricultural colleges. At the time, the United States’ economy was largely agriculturally based and the current higher educational system simply wasn’t training individuals to work in practical, everyday forms of industry. To combat this, Rep. Justin Smith Morrill introduced a bill that would set aside plots of land for the establishment of industrial colleges. It took Morrill five years and a series of rejections, but the act was finally signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The result was the creation of dozens of public colleges in Northern states, though later through a second Morrill Act similar grants would be made to Southern states as well. Due to these two acts, by 1897 the number of higher education institutions had reached 821, up from just 23 in 1800.
Modern media might spread the news of higher education scandals faster these days, but scandals brought on by misdeeds and shameful actions are nothing new in higher ed. Looking for examples? In 1920, a group of Harvard students were expelled amid accusations of homosexual conduct. The expulsion committee’s treatment of the students led to two students committing suicide and permanently ruined the reputation of others, an outcome that didn’t really put much of a shine on the school either. These scandals don’t die easily either, as students are still protesting the school’s decision on this matter today, with many demanding that the expelled students be granted posthumous degrees.
There must be something about being young that makes students want to work hard to change the world, or at least the status quo. College campuses have long been home to a wide range of protests, from peaceful sit-ins to violent riots. While we may be familiar with examples from modern history, many may not realize that students were often a rowdy, protesting group even in the early years of education, sometimes breaking windows, chairs, and furniture in protest.
While students could certainly matriculate to become doctors and lawyers throughout much of higher education’s history, when it came to other higher level degrees, they didn’t really exist until the middle of the 1800s. The first Ph.D. was awarded in 1861 at Yale, in chemistry. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that graduate education would really gain a solid standing in the U.S., with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876.
In the history of higher ed, Charles Eliot is a towering figure who helped make many changes to the system that are still in use today. Eliot used many of the ideas first put forth by Jefferson in his reform of Harvard, but he was especially enamored with the idea of a meritocracy in higher education. It was this idea that led to the development of the entrance exam, a practice which would help many students of high merit but limited means enter college and would weaken the hold the elite had over the private school and many others like it. Eliot extended his policy of merit to all students, even groups who were previously discriminated against like African Americans, Jews, and Roman Catholics.
The first women wouldn’t be able to fully take part in the higher education system in America until 1841, when Oberlin granted the first degree to a female graduate. The school would prove to be a pioneer on multiple fronts: in 1862 it would be the first college to grant a bachelor’s degree to an African-American woman.
Joliet Junior College was the first public community college in the U.S., opening its doors in Joliet, Ill., in 1901. It’s still in operation and is one of more than 1,655 community colleges in the U.S. today.
Think you know the liberal arts? The University of Pennsylvania once considered the study of history, government, and economics unworthy of addition to the liberal arts curriculum.
Admissions scandals aren’t solely a product of our modern cheating-prone society. In fact, they’ve pretty much always been a part of higher ed. Harvard was known to use its medical school as a safe place to admit the sons of wealthy alumni who could not pass the undergraduate college admissions examination. Another example is Radcliffe Heermance, a director of admissions at Princeton during the 1950s, who developed a new admissions policy that included interviews, two letters of personal recommendation, and a social ranking of applicants in order to limit the admission of Jews.
Carl Brigham, a professor of psychology at Princeton, was a pioneer in psychometrics and a proponent of the eugenics movement and anti-immigration legislation. Brigham felt that American education was declining due to racial mixing, especially between whites and blacks. He was also the creator of the SAT and a chairman of the College Board. Brigham would denounce his previous views on race and intelligence in 1930, but allegations of racial bias still dog the SAT today.
A weak economy in the U.S. from the turn of the century until World War I was responsible for financially crippling a large number of colleges and universities. Some would not survive and the period marked a significant decline in the number of educational institutions in America, with a resurgence only happening after the second World War. It was also a time of great reform, and major changes were made to academic programs in the social sciences, especially history, economics, and political science, setting the stage for the modern practice of these professions and many others.
For decades, higher education in America was the bastion of wealthy, white males, even with the later establishment of colleges for minorities and women. It was not until a number of key pieces of legislation were passed after WWII that colleges would become more inclusive and diverse in their student makeup. The most important of these were the G.I. Bill and Affirmative Action. The G.I. Bill helped to open up education to more students by reducing the cost of school for millions of veterans. The Civil Rights movement would be the other essential element that would change college demographics, requiring schools to admit students from a variety of racial, social, and cultural backgrounds as a means of leveling the playing field and increasing diversity. Without these key changes, colleges likely would have remained inaccessible to many groups.
With scores of veterans reaping the benefits of the G.I. Bill and heading to school, the President’s Commission on Higher Education was created to reexamine the role of higher education in America. The result of this research was the Truman Commission Report. Issued in 1947, it recommended sweeping changes in higher education and advised doubling enrollments by 1960. It also advocated for the establishment of a network of community colleges which would offer free or low cost education. The government followed through, and during the 1960s enrollment in community colleges tripled.
The Cold War helped change American higher education through the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
The Cold War’s impact on education in the U.S. extends well beyond the bomb drills and McCarthyism. In an attempt to keep up with the USSR, the U.S. began putting special emphasis on science education, resulting in the NDEA, or National Defense Education Act in 1958. The act authorized increased spending on scientific research at universities across the U.S., as well as greater stress on majors in mathematics, science, and foreign language.
Much of the higher education assistance students get today is the result of the Higher Education Act.
Signed into law in 1965, the Higher Education Act would make it possible for thousands of students to get assistance in attending college. It increased federal aid to higher education and provided funding for a wide range of scholarships and student loans. In subsequent years, amendments and additions would be made to this act, most notably the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, more commonly known as Title IX.
While we tend to think of grade inflation as a recent problem, the reality is that it started decades ago in the wake of the highly controversial Vietnam War. Young men who didn’t want to fight would often enroll in college, which offered them a chance at deferment, but only if they kept their grades up. Sympathetic professors would often help them out, inflating grades so that students wouldn’t flunk out. In fact, Stanford actually did away with the F, and the percentage of students earning As and Bs rose to 92% during the 1970s. After the war, grade inflation was standard practice, and it continues to be a point of contention on campuses today.