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Higher Education in America

by Patricia Albjerg Graham
Last month in this space, I discussed the history of primary and secondary public education in America. During the twentieth century American education has gone through four distinct periods, which I call: Assimilation, Adjustment, Access and Achievement. The history of American higher education falls somewhat outside of that discussion, while also complementing it. A century ago, schooling was complete for most Americans at the end of eighth grade. Today, many believe that a proper education requires college. The following pictures help illustrate the tale of shifting assignments for America’s schools and colleges.

Autonomy to Accountability: Higher Education, 1900-Present

The material thus far has focused entirely on schools serving grades one to twelve, not the other large segment of our educational institutions, colleges and universities. How have they fared over the last century? Over most of the first half of the twentieth century, America’s public colleges and universities functioned quite autonomously. They were mostly small, enrolling less than ten percent of the nation’s eighteen to twenty-one year olds, and, for the most part, financially self-sufficient. None of America’s public institutions was competitive with the best international universities.

The barren setting in this picture of the Purdue University campus in 1900 reflects the modest beginnings of the public institutions. Now, Purdue is an internationally renowned institution, especially for scientific research.

Black students seeking higher education during this period were most likely to find it in a segregated institution. Among the best of the segregated institutions was Tuskegee where these young women learned mattress making early in the twentieth century as part of their “higher education.”

World War II fundamentally changed American higher education. The research the nation recognized it needed for the war effort came principally from its universities. The G I Bill, intended to keep returning veterans from flooding the job market, sent many to college and revealed that many more individuals were capable of doing excellent academic work than had been believed previously. Harvard reluctantly discovered this when the GI’s came to Cambridge.

The extraordinary expansion of the scope of higher education and of enrollment has brought increasing demand for accountability to these institutions. In contrast to a century ago when 2 % of young people attended college, today 55 % of our young people enter. But the contrast between the rich and poor is immense with 70% of the children of the wealthiest families earning bachelor’s degrees compared to 20% of the poorest families.

Americans and their foreign counterparts who now came to the US seeking the finest education in the world laid the basis for the intellectual eminence that the best American universities deserve. But such concentrations of able young people also created the cauldrons that many campuses became in the sixties and seventies as students and faculty protested injustices, domestically and internationally, for which they held the government responsible and their own campuses complicit.

The US no longer leads the world in the percent of its young people who graduate from college though it is still the international leader among research universities. In short, American colleges and universities increasingly look like American schools: the best are the best there are and the worst are an embarrassment and shame of the nation.

Where does this leave us? The efforts of the public to emphasize Assimilation, Adjustment, Access, Achievement, and Accountability for our schools and colleges are legitimate and over time the goals have been achieved, though not as rapidly nor as completely, as their proponents have sought. Each has merit, but the challenge remains in striking the balance of emphasis among them. Educational opportunities have expanded enormously, particularly for the US population that is not white, Protestant, and male. However, gross disparities still exist based on family income, race and ethnicity. Nonetheless, American schools and colleges today are dramatically better both for the students and the nation than they were a century ago. We must hope that our descendants will make improvements to the institutions of education comparable to our own.

Patricia Albjerg Graham is the author of Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nations’s Changing Needs and the Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of American Education at Harvard University.

Photo and image credits: 1) Courtesy of Special Collections, Purdue University Library
2) Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-24334] 3) Harvard University Archives Call # HUP-SF Student Life (56)

Recent Comments

  1. Finally, the Carnival

    This is it, the latest Carnival of Education. I could use a carnival these days, between the data crunching and cloudy days here in the upper Midwest.

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