The History of Higher Education in America

Roots of the American University System

It is perhaps interesting to note that the oldest corporation in America is not a commercial business but Harvard College (Thelin, 2011). There are nine surviving colleges that were founded before 1781 and their heritage and prestige stem from their longevity (Thelin, 2011). These institutions include Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, and Pennsylvania (Thelin, 2011). It is thought that one reason for the success of these institutions has to do with the attempt to transplant the Oxford-Cambridge ideal from Europe to the colonies; this seems to be a theory held even by the colleges themselves (Thelin, 2011). This ideal involves a merging of education, society, religion, and play to achieve an overall ‘lifestyle’ thought to be beneficial to developing young men (Thelin, 2011).

Several old books, on a shelf.

While it is true that the first colleges were intended to be based on the the European model, meaning state-funded institutions of higher learning, most of them failed and were replaced by church sponsored institutions in starting in the 1820s (Geiger, 2014). Contributing to the situation is the fact that America lacked a system of secondary education at this time (Geiger, 2014).

University Building

The mid 1800s brought two events that had a huge impact on higher education in America – the end of the civil war and the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 (Thelin, 2011). The Morrill Act provided grants of federal land to the states for the purpose of establishing institutions of higher education (Thelin, 2011). Although the impact of this act on education was significant, it is also true that the federal government was motivated primarily by a desire to disperse land rather than promote education; the states were left to manage their institutions with little federal oversight (Thelin, 2011)

By 1880 there were few true universities in America with really only five existing at the time, but this was to change with the formation of the Association of American Universities in 1900 (Thelin, 2011). This brought about the emergence of true research institutions, where each discipline had a national society and publications that were open to qualified practitioners (Geiger, 2014). The wealth and energy of this period of growth produced rivalries and donors competing for the best universities (Thelin, 2011).  When research funding first appeared in the 1920s this competition intensified (Geiger, 2014).

universityMass higher education makes it appearance between 1920 and 1945 when enrollment in higher education increased fivefold, from 250,000 in 1920 to 1.43 million in 1945 (Thelin, 2011). This wave of campus building included stadiums and the emergence of the monumental campus (Thelin, 2011). It also ushered in the appearance of junior colleges, teachers colleges, and urban universities as the surge of new students continued to swell (Geiger, 2014). Women and minorities also appear in increasing numbers, although their acceptance by most colleges was restricted and both groups suffered significant discrimination during this period (Geiger, 2014). It was a time of intense growth and excess on campuses across the nation (Thelin, 2011).

Following World War II, from 1945 to 1970, higher education in America was in the midst of its Golden Age, a period of prosperity, prestige and popularity (Thelin, 2011). Growth in universities included not only increased enrollment, as the number of students continued to rise, but also an increase in the scope and quality of educational programs, primarily advanced academically selective programs (Thelin, 2011). Although enrollment had been at nearly 1.5 million prior to WWII, and dipped slightly during the war, it rose to 2.7 million by 1950, 3.6 million in 1960, and 7.9 million by 1970 (Thelin, 2011).

Troubling Developments in Higher Education

riotpoliceBetween 1970 and 1980 the beginning of the failure of confidence in higher education in America began, focussing initially on the lack of data to support its success and worsening with the oil embargo and falling profits margins in education (Thelin, 2011). The federal government became involved in funding higher education in the form of student financial aid during this time (Thelin, 2011). The emergence of high profile college athletics, the growth of research funding and the soaring cost of education, in addition to the social unrest of the 1970s, further contributed to more troubling times for higher education in America (Thelin, 2011).



Geiger, R.L. (2014). The history of American higher education: Learning and culture from the founding to world war II. Princeton University Press.

Thelin, J.R. (2011). A history of American higher education (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The History of Women in Higher Education

The history of higher education itself is covered elsewhere in this blog. On this page the role of women in that history is considered.

Women’s Universities

Initially universities in America were closed to women, by statute (Thelin, 2011). Between 1800 and 1860 fourteen institutions of higher learning enrolled women and the earliest women’s colleges opened between 1840 and 1850 (Thelin, 2011). These included Knox University in Illinois, Wesleyan Female Seminary in Macon, Georgia, and Masonic University in Selma, Alabama (Thelin, 2011). Most of these early institutions were not called colleges and were intended to provide an excellent education for daughters of the wealthy along with preparation for traditional women’s roles in society such as household hostess, wife, and mother (Thelin, 2011).  It is also notable that these early institutions were controversial, viewed as extremist, and sought only by a minority of individuals (Thelin, 2011).

Wellesley College Quad
Wellesley College Quad

By the end of the civil war there was a movement for co-educational institutions and a few opened in the west and midwest, including at Cornell (Thelin, 2011). Unfortunately these institutions did not treat women as equal or even treat them well; women were segregated within the institution itself, discouraged from certain courses, and barred from all extracurricular activities (Thelin, 2011). The women, perhaps not surprisingly, ignored these restrictions and created their own extracurricular activities.  In addition, this was a period of significant growth in women’s colleges.  Between 1870 and 1890 many women’s colleges were formed including such notable institutions as Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith, creating an intellectual environment for women such that many graduates of these programs went on to obtain advanced degrees in law, medicine, and PhD programs – it was a period of unprecedented opportunity for female students and faculty (Thelin, 2011).

Mount Holyoke
Mount Holyoke

Between 1880 and 1920 women’s colleges were hugely successful; enjoying the benefit of large endowments and patronage by the daughters of wealthy families they also shared a vision of themselves as pioneers in the dream of academic success for women (Thelin, 2011). Campus life was rich in extracurricular activities while emphasis was on preparation for graduate school as well as the social graces appropriate for women (Thelin, 2011). These institutions included the ‘Seven Sisters’ of women’s colleges along with other institutions. Coeducational facilities of the time continued to offer unequal treatment, both in the curriculum and on campus, where women were openly mocked by male students and barred from specific activities by university officials (Thelin, 2011). Other colleges, such as Harvard, set up separate female facilities rather than allow women to enroll. It was also during this time that the argument about the dangers of college for women, used in the past to discourage female enrollment and including such things as undue physical strain, ‘brain fever’, and the risk of becoming ‘unfeminine’, switched to concerns about the risk to young men of having women in class; clearly the women had demonstrated their ability to handle both the academic and physical challenges of college education (Thelin, 2011).

university2By 1940 women comprised about 40% of enrollments in college, with roughly 300,000 women in college just after World War I and nearly 600,000 on the eve of World War II (Thelin, 2011). Interestingly, although the goal remained high quality education for women, this did not include a commitment to reducing discrimination based on gender and resulted in things such a quotas for women in some colleges while the elite women’s colleges became known for creating a class of elite women who focussed little on social justice or the plight of average women (Thelin, 2011). During this period women enjoyed greater opportunities at coed colleges although they were still unlikely to hold positions of leadership; sororities and female activities likewise tended to operate as adjuncts to male organizations rather than organizations truly in their own right (Thelin, 2011). It is also notable that graduate opportunities for women were shrinking during this time and few women were admitted to law or medical school (Thelin, 2011).

The following video, created in 2013,  looks at women’s colleges in the 1960s with an eye to the pros and cons of separate education for men and women.

Title IX Policy

The biggest change in higher education for women came in the form of the Title IX legislation that was passed in 1972 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). This federal law protects people from gender discrimination in educational settings that receive federal financial assistance. Although this is not always understood, Title IX does not just apply to athletics but to all forms of education at institutions that receive federal funds, and does not apply just to women but to all people.  It also applies to discrimination based on parenting, pregnancy, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. There is much more about campus violence on the Women in Society page, along with a good deal more information about the current rates of college attendance and the success of women on campus.

Notable Women in Higher Education

Various sources exist for examining the notable women who have contributed to higher education. The following short video was prepared for the Michael Tilford Conference on Diversity and Multiculturalism in 2012. This is an annual conference conducted by the University of Kansas and sponsored by the The Tilford Group.  The inspirational women featured in this video offer a glimpse of the work of women who sought to positively impact higher education in America over the years.



National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Fast facts: Title IX. Retrieved from:

Pasque, P.A. & Nicholson, S.E. (Eds.). (2011). Empowering women in higher education and student affairs: Theory, research, narratives, and practice from feminist perspectives. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Solomon, B.M. (1985). In the company of educated women. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Thelin, J.R. (2011). A history of American higher education (2nd ed. ). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.