A Brief History of Higher Education: Part One

Origins of the American System of Higher Education
Four distinct epochs or waves can be discerned in the history of higher education: In the 85 years between the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War, some 800 liberal arts colleges sprang up across the United States. A typical example is Franklin & Marshall College, which owes half its name to a modest amount of seed money donated by the great Benjamin Franklin in 1787. Another example is Case Western Reserve University, today a Research-One institution, which first saw the light of learning as Western Reserve Academy. “The undergraduate college took . . . . the essential step necessary for a broad education for general citizenship . . . . These institutions were of a size and scale that could be created by a group of private individuals—not requiring great fortunes or state support” (Cox 2000, p. 14).
The end of the Civil War until the turn of the last century was the era of the great land-grant institutions. This expansion of higher education led to the first shakeout. “By 1900, only 180 of those first 800 small colleges remained active; larger, subsidized state universities consumed market share by offering more educational services, subsidized prices, and often more pragmatic and career-oriented curricula” (Cox 2000, p. 14).
Around the turn of the last century, the third great wave broke upon the shores of higher learning. Wealthy industrialists, such as John D. Rockefeller (The University of Chicago), Andrew Carnegie (Carnegie Mellon University), Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt University), and Leland Stanford (Stanford University) founded high-quality, private universities. The institutions were often world-class in their curricula, faculty, and architecture, importing many of these elements from their great European counterparts. Thus, with Chicago, “Cambridge inspired the architecture, while Berlin inspired the pedagogy and faculty structure” (Cox 2000, p. 14).
Fast forward yet another 50 years and we see the GI Bill and the postwar technology boom, fueled in part by the Cold War, driving the creation of the “megaversity.” This term is commonly used to describe a variety of large institutions, all of which share at least the following characteristics: faculty numbering in the thousands and student bodies numbering in the tens of thousands; sprawling and/or multiple campuses containing a large number of undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges; and a large and cumbersome administrative bureaucracy overseeing these complex operations. (We have also seen the proliferation and maturation of the community college. However, this book, by and large, will focus principally upon four-year institutions, albeit some case citations will concern community colleges.)


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