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How the US college went from pitiful to powerful

Oct 17, 2017 by

[Group portrait of students, probably members of The Ranters, at Bethany College, Virginia] | Library of Congress
In its first century the American higher-education system was a messy, disorganised joke. How did it rise to world dominance?

From the perspective of 19th-century visitors to the United States, the country’s system of higher education was a joke. It wasn’t even a system, just a random assortment of institutions claiming to be colleges that were scattered around the countryside. Underfunded, academically underwhelming, located in small towns along the frontier, and lacking in compelling social function, the system seemed destined for obscurity. But by the second half of the 20th century, it had assumed a dominant position in the world market in higher education. Compared with peer institutions in other countries, it came to accumulate greater wealth, produce more scholarship, win more Nobel prizes, and attract a larger proportion of talented students and faculty. US universities dominate global rankings.

How did this remarkable transformation come about? The characteristics of the system that seemed to be disadvantages in the 19th century turned out to be advantages in the 20th. Its modest state funding, dependence on students, populist aura, and obsession with football gave it a degree of autonomy that has allowed it to stand astride the academic world.

The system emerged under trying circumstances early in US history, when the state was weak, the market strong, and the church divided. Lacking the strong support of church and state, which had fostered the growth of the first universities in medieval Europe, the first US colleges had to rely largely on support from local elites and tuition-paying student consumers. They came into being with the grant of a corporate charter from state government, but this only authorised these institutions. It didn’t fund them.

The rationale for starting a college in the 19th century usually had less to do with promoting higher learning than with pursuing profit. For most of US history, the primary source of wealth was land, but in a country with a lot more land than buyers, the challenge for speculators was how to convince people to buy their land rather than one of the many other available options. (George Washington, for instance, accumulated some 50,000 acres in the western territories, and spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to monetise his holdings.) The situation became even more desperate in the mid-19th century, when the federal government started giving away land to homesteaders. One answer to this problem was to show that the land was not just another plot in a dusty agricultural village but prime real estate in an emerging cultural centre. And nothing said culture like a college. Speculators would ‘donate’ land for a college, gain a state charter, and then sell the land around it at a premium, much like developers today who build a golf course and then charge a high price for the houses that front on to it.

Of course, chartering a college is not the same as actually creating a functioning institution. So speculators typically sought to affiliate their emergent college with a religious denomination, which offered several advantages. One was that it segmented the market. A Presbyterian college would be more attractive to Presbyterian consumers than the Methodist college in the next town. Another was staffing. Until the late-19th century, nearly all presidents and most faculty at US colleges were clergymen, who were particularly attractive to college founders for two reasons. They were reasonably well-educated, and they were willing to work cheap. A third advantage was that the church just might be induced to contribute a little money from time to time to support its struggling offspring.

Source: How the US college went from pitiful to powerful | Aeon Essays

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