Stanford University Professor of Education, David Larabee, gives us the fascinating history of American colleges. In the 1800s, the U.S. higher education system began to proliferate — thanks to the competitive offering of colleges by churches to build membership, and then by Midwestern states to attract new settlers. Were these early educational institutions any good?

Today, U.S. universities dominate the world’s-best list. Does the U.S. higher education system provide a model that can be replicated?

“…The weaknesses of the college system were glaringly obvious. Most of the colleges were not created to promote higher learning, and the level of learning they did foster was modest indeed. They had a rudimentary infrastructure and no reliable stream of funding. They were too many in number for any of them to gain distinction, and there was no central mechanism for elevating some of them above others. Unlike Europe, the US had no universities with the imprimatur of the national government or the established church, just a collection of marginal public and private institutions located on the periphery of civilization. What a mess…

In short, the US college system in the mid-19th century was all promise and no product. Nonetheless, it turns out that the promise was extraordinary. One hidden strength was that the system contained nearly all the elements needed to respond to a future rapid expansion of student demand and burgeoning enrollments… The main thing the system lacked was students…

The US system took on a character that was middle-class rather than upper-class. Poor families did not send their children to college, but ordinary middle-class families could. Admission was easy, the academic challenge moderate, the tuition manageable. This created a broad popular foundation for the college that saved it, for the most part, from Oxbridge-style elitism. This kind of populist base of support came to be enormously important when higher education enrollments started to skyrocket…

In the 19th century, weak support from church and state forced US colleges to develop into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, partially self-supporting, and radically decentralized. These humble beginnings provided the system with the core characteristics that helped it to become the leading system in the world…”

~ David Labaree

READ MORE: An Unlikely Triumph | Aeon

History. Being In the Know.


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