Jeremy Anderberg on How Times and Higher-ed have Changed in America.

“A college education unfits rather than fits men to affairs.” –Andrew Carnegie, 1901

Over one hundred years ago, one of the richest and most successful men in America, Andrew Carnegie, thought that college was not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental for the average young man. At that point in our country’s history, only 4% of young people attended college. What changed?

In America today, it’s often assumed that most young adults will attend college after graduating high school. It’s just what you’re supposed to do. Even discussing anything to the contrary is often met with backlash, as is evidenced in the comments on a guest article we published earlier this year about testing out of even a semester of college. The reality, however, is that the situation in America here in 2014 for graduated high schoolers is much different than it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and even just 10 years ago.

This is the first of three articles that will take a look at whether our modern ideal – that college is the best path for everyone – is really valid. While there are plenty of alternative college options out there (which we’ll discuss in-depth in the third article in the series), we’ll largely be discussing the necessity of the 4-year college, as this is often seen as the “best” option after high school. It’s what the kids with the highest test scores do, it’s what supposedly gives you the most income potential, and it still carries a prestige that simply isn’t found in community colleges or trade schools.

You may be thinking, “Of course college is necessary!” and you certainly wouldn’t be alone in that. There is, however, a growing population, both young and old, that is starting to question this assumption. This is even evidenced just by a quick look at what Google wants to fill in when searching “is college…”:

google screenshot

Six of those top 10 results are questioning the worth and necessity of college! Clearly there are people asking this question, even if they’re in the minority for the time being.

As of 2013, there are about 14 million students enrolled in 4-year institutions, and that number is expected to jump up to 20 million in the next few years. While some of these are older, non-traditional students, most of them are made up of the 70% of high schoolers who attend college immediately after graduating (this particular statistic includes 2- and 4-year colleges).

Over two-thirds of all high school students believe (whether on their own or through cultural pressures) that college is the best choice for them following high school. The college experience has become as American as apple pie and baseball. It’s just what you do.

Is it really the best option, for every single person though? It wasn’t always the case in the history of America that the majority of 18-year-olds would trot off to college in the fall. In fact, it’s actually quite recent, only taking hold from about the 1920s and on (and some would argue much later than that, even). For over 300 years prior, college served a pretty specific demographic of people, rather than being a universal, automatic stop on the conveyer belt to adulthood.

Our goal with this series is not to bash the college experience. Rather it is to present objective reasoning as to why a particular student may or may not consider attending college. What we want to do is examine and soften the iron-clad assumption that it’s simply what you do. In the end, students should thoughtfully engage their reasons for attending college, and make conscientious decisions. Certainly, that’s hard to do as an 18-year-old, but it is possible, especially with support from parents and mentors.

*Note: While there are technically differences in the definitions of the terms “college” and “university,” in this series of articles, I’ll use them interchangeably. For what we’ll be discussing, there is no real need to differentiate, as they’re both essentially known as 4-year learning institutions.

The History of College in America

In this first post, we’re going to take a brief look at the history of higher education in America. What was it that changed in the last century that created the modern demand for the college experience? How did it transition from an institution for the wealthy upper echelon of society, to a near-universal rite of passage?

As author Daniel Clark asks in Creating the College Man, “Might not our present debates about the purpose and place of college education (what value it adds) be advanced by a deeper understanding of the genesis of the American embrace of college education?”

As is evident throughout most Art of Manliness articles, we rely on history to inform the fullest understanding of the present. To ask the question of whether or not college is necessary, we need to first see how we got to this point. It certainly wasn’t always necessary…has our society changed enough for that experience to now be an unassailable requirement, or should we perhaps question some of the norms we’ve come to believe? Below you’ll find an overview of the history of higher ed in America. Let it inform you about our present situation, and provide deeper understanding of how and why attending college came to carry the weight that it does today.

A Timeline of Higher Education Pre-1944

We’re going to break down this timeline of college in America to pre-1944 and post-1944. We’ll find out why exactly further on, but for now, learn a little bit about how the typical American college came to be.

1636 — Harvard founded. It was the first college in the colonies that were to become the United States. It roughly followed the model of Cambridge and Oxford in England (two of the world’s oldest institutions), as the Massachusetts Bay Colony had many residents who attended those schools. To a large degree, Harvard focused on training clergymen in order “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches.” Training clergymen wasn’t the only emphasis though; of Harvard’s first 500 graduates, only about half went into ministry. There were other possible studies that could lead to careers as public officials, physicians, lawyers — other leadership roles in local communities. Students of early Harvard were studying a largely classical (what we’d now call liberal arts) curriculum of Latin, Greek studies, civic law, theology, etc.

1693 — It took almost 60 more years for a second college to be founded, William & Mary. It was an Anglican institution, and required students to be members of the Church of England. In addition, professors had to declare their adherence to the Thirty-Nine Articles. While you could study philosophy as well as “natural” philosophy (math, physics, etc.), this education was mostly in preparation to become a minister.

1700 — Tuition is up to about 10 shillings per quarter, which amounted to the cost of about a pair of shoes and two pairs of stockings. This cost was not prohibitive for most families. So, why didn’t more people go to college? It was more about practicality. The family farm or business could ill afford to lose an able-bodied young man for a period of multiple years. It not only was a couple years of lost income, but when living costs were factored in for students (almost entirely paid for by parents), the cost just was not worth it for the vast majority of colonists. It was an elite group of people who attended; in fact, for its first 150 years, Harvard graduates were listed by the family’s social rank rather than alphabetically.

1776 — By the time of the Revolutionary War, there were nine colleges in the states. Enrollment up to this point was still quite small (rarely ever exceeding 100 students per graduating class), but those who did attend college became community and political leaders. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington are just a few of our college-educated forefathers. It should be noted that not all early college-educated men earned completed degrees — there was no stigma in “dropping out,” so, many of them attended for a year and two and then left to pursue careers. As John Thelin notes in A History of American Higher Education, “Going to college was not a prerequisite to the practice of the learned professions. Learning often took place outside the academy in various forms of apprenticeship.” So why did people attend college? It was about prestige, status, and civic leadership/power.

Early 1800s — The number of colleges in America doubled in the previous quarter-century to around 20 institutions. While enrollment has gone up, it’s still not popular amongst common folks. Tuition was fairly low and entrance requirements were flexible, so why didn’t more attend college? Thelin explains:

“Given that tuition, room, and board charges at many colleges were minimal, why did more young men and women not opt to enroll? The American economy provides two very different explanations. On the one hand, many families could not afford tuition payments, however low; more important, they could not afford the forgone income or forfeited field labor of an elder child who went from farm to campus. On the other hand, in those areas where the American economy showed signs of enterprise and growth, a college degree—even if affordable and accessible—was perceived as representing lost time for making one’s fortune. This perception held for such high-risk ventures as land development, mining, and business. It also pertained to the learned professions of law and medicine, where academic degrees were seldom if ever necessary for professional practice. The college in this era, then, was but one means of finding one’s place in adult society and economy.”

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