Higher Education

At the beginning of the 21st century, colleges and universities in the United States are among the most visible and highly regarded in the world—providing individuals from all walks of life the opportunity to pursue higher education. From the founding of Harvard College in 1636 to the present, the twin pillars of change and innovation have shaped and continue to inform the character, quality, diversity, and access to higher learning offered in this nation.

Change And Innovation In The Late 18th And 19th Centuries

Establishment of New Institutions

Public Institutions

The first institutions of higher learning in the United States—anchored in the classical liberal arts curriculum offered solely at the undergraduate level—served the elite and were founded as secular institutions that prepared men for leadership in the American colonies as well as for careers in the ministry. This changed, however, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as many states began establishing state institutions and, in 1819, the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Dartmouth College case drew a distinction between public and private institutions. As society became less agrarian and more industrial, public pressure grew on universities to meet the utilitarian needs of the expanding society throughout the 19th century. The new state universities gradually became increasingly responsive to society, especially through establishing so-called modern fields of study and conducting research that contributed to the “public good.” They were aided in these efforts by the passage of the Morrill Federal Land Grant Act of 1862, which provided grants to each state for support of at least one college to teach subjects related to agriculture and engineering.

Women’s Colleges

As state universities were flourishing during the second half of the 1800s, certain groups were being denied their benefits. Women were one such group. Although Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio, first admitted women in 1837, most eastern colleges refused to admit them. Thus began the women’s college movement, with the founding of Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), and a host of other all-female schools. Women in these schools were taught subjects—such as grammar, geography, and household arts—aimed at preparing them to be housewives, mothers, and school teachers, and their proponents argued that these schools met the demand for higher education without sacrificing a woman’s femininity. There were 119 women’s colleges by 1900.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

In the years following the Civil War, most institutions closed their doors to blacks, just as they did to women. New educational opportunities were created, however, with the passage of the Second Morrill Federal Land Grant Act of 1890. This law specifically prohibited payments of federal funds to states that discriminated against blacks in admission to their tax-supported colleges; states using federal funds had to either make their schools open to both blacks and whites or make money available for segregated black colleges to serve as an alternative to white schools. This led Southern states to establish dual systems of higher education, and to the founding of 17 land-grant colleges that had the principle mission of educating black Americans. These schools came to be referred to as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and today there are 103 of them in the United States.

Change and Innovation Within Institutions


The mid-19th century saw not only a transformation in the types of institutions that were educating our citizens, but also a change in who was teaching them in the classroom. Especially beginning during the late 1870s, faculty began to be trained in specific disciplines and took on new careers as full-time instructors; they were no longer preparing for the ministry or for leadership. By the late 1870s, only 15% of faculty engaged in clerical activities, whereas more than half were engaged in their fields of specialization.

Vertical Expansion: Growth of Graduate Education

Just as faculty were becoming specialists in selected fields, students began to further their education by obtaining master’s and doctoral degrees. The University of Michigan awarded the first master’s degree in 1851, Yale awarded the first PhD in 1861, and graduate education began to grow rapidly after the Civil War. Especially during the latter part of the 19th century, many colleges would become “universities”; many state colleges were transformed into universities, and some liberal arts colleges were reorganized into universities—institutions that offered advanced study leading to master’s or doctoral degrees.

Horizontal Expansion in the Curriculum

As more institutions served an increasing number— and diversity—of students in the mid-1800s, new fields of study developed beyond the traditional fields. Modern subjects like mathematics, sciences (physics and chemistry), and fine arts were introduced, as was the elective system; students could now choose almost all of their courses and specialize in their choice of fields of study. The study of the liberal arts and sciences and professional fields was encouraged as the universities increasingly committed to advanced study and the advancement of knowledge through research.

Change And Innovation In The 20th Century

Establishment of New Institutions

Two-Year Colleges

Although the 19th century had seen a growth in state institutions and women’s colleges, before the 20th century, no more than 4% of the college-aged population attended college. This did not mean that there was not a need for mass higher learning. The beginning of the 20th century saw a dramatic increase in the need for trained workers, growing public concern about advancing equality of opportunity, and concern about the inaccessibility of many 4-year colleges. These factors, combined with the desire of small and medium-sized cities without major institutions to bring mass higher education  to  their  areas,  led  to  the  proliferation  of 2-year, or “junior,” colleges. Students needed training, but many were unable to attend state universities or private colleges, and 2-year colleges gave them another option when it came to access to higher education. By 1948, there were 650 junior colleges, and today there are more than 1,200. These schools focused on offering their students a collegiate education and “academic transfer” programs for the first half of the century, but since the 1950s, they have increasingly emphasized programs such as vocational and career education, continuing education, and remedial education.

On-Line Colleges

Today, the most accessible means of mass higher learning  is  on-line,  or  “virtual,”  higher  education. On-line courses are often composed of students from all over the country—or the world—communicating via e-mail or video conference without ever setting foot on a physical college campus. Students in a mathematics class can, for example, simply dial in from a computer, watch a video of the lecture, and do their homework on-line. Initially, on-line education was often viewed as a preferred mode for meeting the needs of nontraditional, adult learners who needed to update their technological knowledge quickly, or who simply wanted intellectual enrichment. Increasingly, however, colleges and universities are incorporating on-line programs in their distance education and “traditional” programs, thereby allowing many more students access to higher education.

The University of Phoenix is the most well-known and oldest of the on-line institutions. It was founded in 1978 to provide educational programs for working adults and enrolled about 40,000 at that time. It has granted more than 370,000 degrees, most of which are in the fields of business and education.

Change and Innovation Within Institutions

Whereas 2-year colleges increasingly emphasized vocational and career education after World War II, a growing interest in the professions led most universities to offer a much greater range of undergraduate professional  programs,  from  the  arts  to  journalism to pharmacy and communications. And although most professional  study  took  place  at  the  undergraduate level through the first half of the 20th century, many universities began establishing graduate professional programs in such fields as architecture, business, and education. In addition, university presses and scholarly journals were founded to provide outlets for the results of investigations, and professional associations were created to disseminate research and scholarship in the various fields of study.

Contemporary Portrait: Diversity in Higher Learning

According to the Almanac of the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 15 million students are enrolled in America’s institutions of higher learning. In 2001, more than 1,200,000 undergraduate degrees were conferred, 57% of which went to women. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were almost 591,000  full-time  faculty  members  spread  across 4,197 institutions of higher learning. Women account for about 56% of college students, and about 28% of all students are minorities.

As these statistics show, institutions of higher education in the United States are thriving. Two-year colleges have become increasingly important in recent years as an increased need for vocational training, for both adults and traditional students, has resurfaced in the marketplace. On-line and distance education continue to grow at a very fast pace: in 2001, more than 127,000 distance education courses were offered at more than 2,320 institutions—with traditional institutions adapting their programs to match what schools such as the University of Phoenix already provide its students, not least for fear that they will lose potential students to programs that are more convenient and accessible.  Finally,  today’s  university  has  become a multipurpose “multiversity” that serves diverse purposes and peoples and has a close connection to society. There are more than 460 such diverse “universities,” virtually all of which offer their students a wide variety of programs of study and activities.


Anchored in the legacy of change and innovation, our system of higher education has greatly enhanced the quality of opportunity for many diverse students while concurrently advancing both high-quality curriculum and diversity through higher education. At the same time, there continue to be many external and internal pressures as higher education moves further into the 21st century. Among them is a growing public consensus that the private benefits of higher education are greater than the public benefits, and, in turn, many states and institutions are witnessing significant losses of public funding. Among many others, the challenge of maintaining quality and a commitment to equality of opportunity will clearly advance change and innovation across the higher learning environment. As it has in the past, higher education will need to build on its legacy and embrace change and innovation throughout the21st century.


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  3. Chronicle of Higher Education, http:///www.chronicle.com
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  7. University of Phoenix, http://www.uophx.edu/
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