A Brief History of American Higher Education

Higher education has changed significantly over the course of history. While college once used to be an option only for the most elite Americans, it is becoming more readily accessible to the entire population. Your classmates are likely average people, while centuries ago they would have been strictly the sons of millionaires. 

This is largely due to the fact that there are significantly more universities today than there ever have been before. Colleges are growing at a rapid pace which accommodates more and more students each year hoping to earn a degree. 

Don’t take my word for it though, check out this sliding graphic that maps out when colleges were founded across America. In the 1600s there was just one school to serve every American that sought out higher education. Today, it’s hard to find a spot on the map where there isn’t a university. 

That first college, established in 1636, was Harvard University. At the time, it was named “New College” and primarily served to educate the leaders of the churches. As you can imagine, this created a very different college experience for its students at the time than ours here in the 21st century. 

Professors emphasized the importance of repeated drilling in their curriculums. And it wasn’t until 1782 when the school added medical studies to their program, so changing your major for the first century was certainly not an option. 

After Harvard opened its doors, others were not quick to jump on board. 57 years passed before the next college, William and Mary was founded. It wasn’t until the 1740s when colleges truly started to pop up. 

Because colleges are still being founded today, the average university nationwide was started in 1904. Along the east coast, the state averages are earlier given the colonial nature of America. Maryland is home to the oldest schools, with an average founding of 1879.

The states with the newest universities are Wyoming, Hawaii, Florida, Alaska, and Nevada – all having average foundings of 1946 or later. The establishment of universities may have peaked in the late 1800s, but with the combination of new colleges still being created and current colleges expanding their faculty and student base, higher education is more prominent today than ever. 

The one downside to this is with more students earning degrees, the job market is increasingly competitive. As a 1700 Harvard graduate, the only equally qualified competition you had for a prospective job would have been your handful of classmates at your university. Today you must compete with people across the globe. 

Students today have many more decisions to make – from what college they should attend to what they should major in. While these decisions may be overwhelming, at least you weren’t locked into your chem courses when you came in pre-med when let’s face it, you never really liked STEM in the first place. 

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