In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Evolution of Higher Education in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sets and Reports
  • Journals
  • Land-Grant Colleges and Universities
  • Research Universities and Sponsored Research
  • Foundations in Higher Education
  • Community Colleges and For-Profit Institutions
  • Academic Freedom
  • Governance and Management
  • Law in Higher Education
  • Race and Culture
  • Testing and Admissions
  • Student-Aid Policy
  • Student Life and Cultures
  • Student Politics
  • Women in Higher Education
  • College Sports
  • LGBTQ+ Community and Higher Education

Education Historical Evolution of Higher Education in the United States
Christopher Loss, Serena Hinz, Christopher J. Ryan, Christine Dickason
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0057


In this article, the historical evolution of higher education refers to higher learning in the United States from the colonial era to the present day. A radically pluralistic system of public, private, and for-profit two- and four-year training institutes and colleges and professional and graduate schools, the American system is generally regarded as the best in the world. A by-product of the American commitment to liberty and to the belief that academic life should exist outside the grasp of direct government control, US higher education’s independence has gradually decreased since World War II and with the dramatic growth of federal funding for research and student aid. Consisting of 4,700 institutions that enroll upward of twenty million students from the United States and abroad, the sector has become a critical governmental intermediary that relies on heavy state-level and federal subsidies and tax expenditures in order to fulfill its core mission of teaching, research, and service. The higher education system also faces a number of pressing challenges: rising costs, declining public support, high student attrition, and long time-to-degree that often results in no degree at all, especially at two-year colleges where the majority of poor and underrepresented minority students enroll. The US higher education system, existing as it does at the intersection of state/society relations, is a fascinating site to study American history. The citations included in this article are intended to provide a point of embarkation for further inquiry. They have been selected because they offer a thematic overview of the history of American higher education intended to provoke additional reading and investigation.

General Overviews

Chroniclers have been tracing the historical evolution of organized higher learning since its formation in Europe and England in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. In the American context, “house histories” of varying quality and accuracy likewise accompanied the founding of the first colonial colleges in the 17th century. While these institutional histories remain a staple of the historical literature and are popular among alumni (and could alone fill an entire annotated bibliography), the first professional histories written by professionally trained historians did not emerge until the late 19th century, which saw the rise of the American history profession. A fringe field dominated by narrowly drawn institutional studies, the systematic scholarly exploration of the history of higher education surged after World War II, when the importance of the research university for national defense and for educating citizens for the rapidly changing labor market and world first became manifest. The postwar period witnessed unprecedented demand for collegiate study, especially among the country’s millions of GI Bill–wielding veterans, which, in turn, generated heightened interest in the study of the institution’s historical evolution. In an effort to make sense of American higher education’s dramatic emergence as a key engine of social mobility, economic progress, and national defense, Brubacher and Rudy 1958 examines the history of the higher education sector as it changed from one dominated by the old-time college to one dominated by the research university. Rudolph and Thelin 1990 provides an incisive study of the “collegiate way” and the lasting influence of the college model on the ascendant university in the late 19th century. For the emergence of the American university, readers should engage Kerr 1963 and Veysey 1965. On the academic enterprise’s transformation into a secular middle-class institution, see Bledstein 1978 and Reuben 1996. For the best synthetic history of American higher education, see Thelin 2011. For a new interpretation of higher education’s role in nation building and in defining the terms of democratic citizenship in the 20th century, see Loss 2012. Smith and Bender 2006 compiles an impressive collection of primary documents that will assist readers in navigating higher education’s changing meanings, policies, and practices since World War II.

  • Bledstein, B. J. 1978. Culture of professionalism: The middle-class and the development of higher education in America. New York: Norton.

    Through a close examination of leading university presidents—including Harvard’s Charles Eliot and Yale’s Noah Porter—the book explores the rise and impact of the middle class on the modern university and how the middle class turned the institution into a main engine of upward mobility and social status.

  • Brubacher, J. S., and W. Rudy. 1958. Higher education in transition: A history of American colleges and universities. New York: Harper & Row.

    A comprehensive history notable for being among the first critical appraisals of American higher education written in the post–World War II period.

  • Kerr, C. 1963. The uses of the university. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A seminal work—first published in 1963—on the history of the “federal grant university,” what Kerr famously dubbed the “multiversity.” Conceptually rich yet accessibly written, this book is essential reading for scholars, students, and administrators interested in understanding the behavior of the modern research university since World War II.

  • Loss, C. P. 2012. Between citizens and the state: The politics of American higher education in the 20th century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A social and political history that tracks the growing partnership between the federal government and higher education between World War I and the rights revolution of the 1970s, and the collapse of that relationship from the 1980s onward.

  • Reuben, J. A. 1996. The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Examines the impact of value-neutrality and of objective truth on the gradual disestablishment of religious orthodoxy in the modern university.

  • Rudolph, F., and J. R. Thelin. 1990. The American college and university: A history. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.

    Rudolph’s survey covers the colonial college and the rise of the university, but is at its best dissecting the “college movement” of the first half of the 19th century and the spread of the “collegiate way”—the institutions and habits of mind that gradually coalesced to form the general pattern of undergraduate education in the United States.

  • Smith, W., and T. Bender. 2006. American higher education transformed, 1940–2005: Documenting the national discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    This collection of primary documents serves as a miniature archive on the history of American higher education since World War II, covering an assortment of topics: from the liberal arts and graduate study to the academic profession, academic freedom, and the rights of students. Provides an excellent guide for faculty and administrators interested in better understanding American higher education.

  • Thelin, J. R. 2011. A history of American higher education. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    This well-written and engaging study, which deploys sociologist Burton Clark’s idea of the university as an institutional saga, is the rare scholarly study that will enlighten both the general reader and the professional academic—ideal for both introductory and advanced courses in higher education administration and policy studies.

  • Veysey, L. R. 1965. The emergence of the American university. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Working at the crossroads of organizational theory and intellectual history, this book uses a series of illuminating institutional case studies of the country’s first universities to explore how the fragmentation of knowledge led to the bureaucratization of the institution and to new patterns of social experience for faculty, students, and administrators.

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