In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overview of Development
  • Government Resources
  • Centers and Institute Publications
  • Organizations and Advocacy Research
  • Periodicals Other Than Journals
  • Journals
  • Critiques of American Higher Education

Political Science Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.
Ann Cohen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0111


By many measures, American higher education has been a success. Growing from a small private enterprise educating the nation’s economic and social elite to a vast network of postsecondary institutions, it now enrolls sixty-eight in every hundred high school graduates. This rapid growth reflects significant investment of public resources and has not occurred without continuing debates over the level, direction, and consequences of this support. Works included in this article provide an overview of the factors that have shaped American higher education, including the impact of the GI Bill after World War II, the distribution of the financial burden between taxpayer and student, and the appropriate degree of access accorded through affirmative action and financial aid. Along with growth of public support, controversies have arisen, especially regarding the quality and efficiency of postsecondary programs and whether expansion of access has come at the expense of quality. The article begins with a Historical Overview of Development and proceeds to consideration of governance, funding, accountability, and measures of performance, and to questions of the impact the system has had on the collective good and individual advancement. The major policy debates are discussed in later sections on Accountability, Race and Affirmative Action, financial burden, and future direction, especially as these involve alternatives to the traditional four-year and postgraduate programs.

Historical Overview of Development

The histories of American higher education are useful in providing a social, economic, and political context for significant changes in public policy and in the institutions themselves. While dated, Rudolph 1990 is the standard reference for the history of American colleges and universities; it links changes in institutional mission to social and economic realities. Thelin 2011 is an updated narrative following many of the Rudolph themes but elaborating political forces. Cohen and Kisker 2010 periodizes its historical narrative, emphasizing the ways that social norms have supported the expansion and diversification of institutional missions. Both Lucas 2006 and Brubacher and Ruby 1997 are standard texts for educational history and share an emphasis on changing pedagogy and practice along with expanding curricula and differentiation of institutional roles; however, Brubacher and Ruby 1997 treats postsecondary education as an extension of its base in K–12 education. Loss 2012 echoes many of the same themes of postsecondary institutional development, but it links many of the changes, especially in public higher education, to federal initiatives such as the Morrill Acts and the post–World War II GI Bill. Bender 1997 reviews the last half of the 20th century to foreshadow the ways in which expansion of mission, intellectual achievement, and access have led to conflicts over the fundamental values of American higher education that shape political discourse today.

  • Bender, Thomas. “Politics, Intellect, and the American University, 1945–1995.” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 126 (Winter 1997): 1–38.

    Growth in intellectual achievements and expansion of access generated conflicts over mission, presaging the decline in fiscal support for public higher education and attacks on the institution.

  • Brubacher, John Seiler, and Willis Ruby. Higher Education in Transition: A History of American Colleges and Universities. 4th ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997.

    Standard history reflecting pedagogy and praxis and their relationship with other institutions such as elementary and secondary education and a developing bureaucracy at both state and national levels.

  • Cohen, Arthur M., and Carrie B. Kisker. The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System. 2d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

    Chronological discussion of six “ages” of higher education from 1636 to 2009 embedded in social and economic transformations. Emphasis is on the changes in postsecondary institutions, governance, and purpose that are aligned with the metamorphosis of the nation itself.

  • Loss, Christopher P. Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

    Traces the impact of major federal legislation on higher education and American society. Includes consideration of the 1944 GI Bill, 1958 National Defense Education Act, and the 1965 Higher Education Act, which shaped expansion and opportunity for a greater portion of American society as well as shifts in mission to science education and research and development.

  • Lucas, Christopher J. American Higher Education: A History. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    Provides a chronological survey of American higher education, examining questions across the spectrum of philosophical and practical dilemmas presented by the social context.

  • Rudolph, Frederick. The American College and University: A History. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

    Uses a combination of educational policy and public policy analysis to trace the development of postsecondary education from the colonial period through the mid-20th century. One of the first to link changes in higher education with the expansion of American high schools and a changing economy that created a demand for a more educated work force.

  • Thelin, John R. A History of American Higher Education. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

    A very readable overview of American education situated in well-defined contexts of political, social, and economic change.

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