Higher Education in the United States

Higher Education in the United States – FREE Higher Education in

John R. Thelin
Jason R. Edwards
Eric Moyen

Joseph B. Berger
Maria Vita Calkins


At the start of the twenty-first century, higher education in the United States stands as a formidable enterprise. As an established "knowledge industry" it represents about 3 percent of the gross national product. Virtually every governor and legislature across the nation evokes colleges and universities as critical to a state's economic and cultural development. Its profile includes more than 4, 000 accredited institutions that enroll over fifteen million students and confers in excess of two million degrees annually. Colleges and universities spend about $26 billion per year on research and development, of which $16 billion comes from federal agencies. The research universities' ability to attract expertise is recognized internationally.

This success story of growth and expansion began more than 300 years ago before the United States existed. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the idea of an American higher education grew to fruition throughout the ensuing centuries. At the same time, differences developed with each new era of collegiate growth, but the story has remained one of expanding access.

The Colonial Period

Imperial governments usually invested little in colonial colleges. The typical mercantile approach emphasized the exportation of agricultural products and raw materials from the provinces to the homeland. The British Empire, for instance, responded to Virginia's request for a seminary to save their souls, with "Souls?!? Damn your souls! Make tobacco." Despite such hostility, the American colonies generally enjoyed greater independence than the typical British territory. While a succession of kings and queens encouraged the cultivation and exportation of tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton, colleges also flourished as an unlikely crop in America.

The colonists created institutions for higher education for several reasons. New England settlers included many alumni of the royally chartered British universities, Cambridge and Oxford, and therefore believed education was essential. In addition, the Puritans emphasized a learned clergy and an educated civil leadership. Their outlook generated Harvard College in 1636. Between Harvard's founding and the start of the American Revolution, the colonists chartered nine colleges and seminaries although only one in the South.

Religion provided an impetus for the creation of colonial colleges. As the First Great Awakening of the 1730s to 1770s initiated growth in a wider variety of Protestant churches, each denomination often desired its own seminary. Furthermore, each colony tended to favor a particular denomination and so the new colleges took on an importance for regional development as well. Presbyterians in New Jersey founded the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton). The College of William and Mary in Virginia maintained a strong Anglican orientation, reflecting that colony's settlement by landed gentry from England. The Baptists, who had been expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled in Rhode Island, established their own college but in an unusual move did not require religious tests for admission. Other dissenting religious groups, such as the Methodists and Quakers, became enthusiastic college builders after facing hostility in many colleges.

Small in size and limited in scope, colonial colleges rarely enrolled more than one hundred students and few completed their degrees. Yet the young men who attended these colonial colleges made historic and extraordinary contributions to both political thought and action. Also, colleges represented one of the few institutional ventures to receive royal and/or colonial government support and regulation during the eighteenth century. The college's multipurpose buildings were typically among the largest construction projects in the colony, matched only by a major church or a capitol.

Though colonial colleges were frontier institutions that expanded access to higher education, by contemporary standards the colonial period remained elite and exclusionary. Only white Christian males were allowed to matriculate. Women and African-Americans were denied participation by statute and custom, but colleges did serve Native Americans in a missionary capacity. The evangelism of the Protestant groups attracted donors, although in time the colonial colleges' devotion to such educational plans waned. In order to keep receiving financial support, however, the colleges argued that by educating young Christian men, missionaries would be available to preach Christianity to Native Americans.

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