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Higher Education

Higher Education Institutions: Past, Present, and Future

Higher education has roots that trace back to Plato’s Academy in ancient Athens (Smith, 2012).  In the United States, the first establishments of higher learning included such notable institutions as Harvard College, Yale College, and the College of William and Mary (Geiger, 2016).  Indeed, these early higher education institutions (HEIs) were centered on the perpetuation of Christian philosophy (Ford, 2017; Jencks & Riesman, 2017).  Today, HEIs serve a number of purposes beyond the propagation of religion.  This includes, but is not limited to such objectives as conducting scientific research, distribution of knowledge, specialized training, and socio-political functions (Altbach, 2016).  Likewise, Sener (2012) writes, “Education is a fundamentally societal enterprise which is deeply cultural, highly political, inescapably moral, and intensely social” (Loc 101).  With these points in mind, this essay will analyze and contextualize historical, societal, and technological shifts which have shaped the foundations and leadership of American colleges and universities from the mid-17th century through contemporary higher education and speculate on the future of higher education in the United States.  


A Brief Reflection on American Higher Education from the 17th Century to Present Day


The American tradition of higher education has distinctly English roots.  The first colleges in colonial America were inspired by two notable English colleges—Cambridge and Oxford (Fink & Inkelas, 2015).  Following the academic tradition of these two universities, early American colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and William and Mary were “residential colleges” in which students resided on the grounds thus engendering an academic community of practice (Fink & Inkelas, 2015, p. 5).


As the American colonies expanded, so too did the need for higher education (Dayton, 2015).  From the mid-17th century through the early 21st century, higher education in colonial America and later the United States has expanded and evolved due to historical events, social movements and technological innovations.  The following sub-sections will describe key events and changes which have occurred in American higher education.  It should be noted that the word America is sometimes used in lieu of the United States as higher education in this region begins during the colonial period.  United States is utilized only for events occurring after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788.

Historical and Societal Events Impacting Higher Education in America

The first colleges in America were established as a means for propagating the religion and culture of Christianity (Ford, 2017; Geiger, 2016).  Although early colleges like Harvard and William and Mary did receive some financial support from colonial assemblies, these private liberal arts colleges were generally only accessible to a privileged subset of society (Geiger, 2016).  Prospective students commonly had to demonstrate some level of proficiency in Latin and Greek to be admitted to these institutions (Geiger, 2016).  This required a level of education that many people living in the American colonies did not possess.  Albeit, some colleges like Harvard did make provisions for poor students in the form of “work-study programs” (Peterson, 1983, para. 16).


During the mid-18th century, due in part to Enlightenment ideals and a general shift from religion to science as the explanatory hegemon, some colonial colleges in America became somewhat tolerant of unorthodox viewpoints (Geiger, 2016). Moreover, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and subsequent ratification of the U.S. Constitution (1788) had a significant impact on higher education in America.  As early as 1785, the state of Georgia enacted the first public university system (Dayton, 2015).  North Carolina would soon follow by creating a statewide higher education system in 1789 (Dayton, 2015). 


The industrial revolution that occurred during this same time period and through the mid-19th century would likewise influence higher education.  Institutions of higher learning which had previously centered on religion were adapting to new industrial and political demands.  The advent of land-grant colleges and research universities, as described by Ford (2017), “focused on research for the cultural benefit of society” (p. 560).


Higher education expanded to the western territories during the 19th century.  However, one of the most notable events of the mid-1800s was the establishment of Oberlin College (1833) and its acceptance of both African American and female students (Geiger, 2016).  This represented one of the most important social, political, and cultural advancements in higher education to date.  In addition, many colleges, predominantly those in the west, kept tuition low which allowed their “far-from-wealthy students” an opportunity to attend classes (Geiger, 2016, p. 14).  Furthermore, by the 1860s over forty HEIs were established exclusively for the education of female students (Geiger, 2016).


The postbellum period of the late 1800s would lead to a proliferation of land-grant colleges and greater inclusion of African Americans.  The Second Morrill Act of 1890 would forbid racial discrimination for any institution receiving federal funding (“Colleges of agriculture,” 1995).  More people were attending college than ever before and the pursuit of science and industry as an educational objective grew dramatically during this era (“Colleges of agriculture,” 1995; Geiger, 2016).


From the late 1800s through World War I, enrollment in HEIs continued to grow.  In 1870, the typical college had just under 100 students although by 1915 the largest institutions had approximately 5,000 students (Geiger, 2016).  Moreover, the inclusion of women in coeducational colleges increased dramatically during this period.  In addition, “The gulf between the educational experiences of women and men” as described by Geiger (2016), “narrowed even further in the next generation” (p. 18).  Likewise, HEIs were beginning to include a more expansive elective curriculum and added a large number of courses directed at specialized training like business, mining, engineering, dentistry, pharmacy, and architecture just to name a few (Geiger, 2016; Mumper, Gladieux, King & Corrigan, 2016).


In 1915, college professors organized the American Association of University Professors to promote their educational rights, namely, academic freedom (Geiger, 2016).  During this same period, student organizations flourished, and football became an important part of college culture (Geiger, 2016).  Together these innovations, which were novel in the early 20th century have become an embedded part of the modern “brick-and-mortar” HEI.  Furthermore, the early 20th century realized the standardization of college curriculum via the National Association of State Universities (NASU) and college accreditation by way of the Association of American Universities (AAU) (Geiger, 2016).


In 1920, HEI enrollment doubled, leading to what Trow (1973) called the “transition from elite to mass higher education (p. 1).  During this period, there was a significant increase in the number of “part-time or commuting students” (Geiger, 2016, p. 21).  Community colleges and specialty institutions were a logical outgrowth of this increased demand for higher education.  By 1930, the number of part-time students exceeded that of full-time students at many colleges (Geiger, 2016).  Moreover, HEIs were investing more fiscal resources in their students and acquiring better teachers (Geiger, 2016).


The post-World War II era from 1945-1975 realized a continued expansion in the number of HEIs and the further development of academic standards.  This was due in part to the immense number of returning military personnel who would attend college through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—better known as the GI Bill.  The 1960s was a period of such remarkable growth in higher education enrollments that it was larger than any other previous decade (Geiger, 2016).  The ramifications of such a substantial increase in student enrollments necessitated the drive for greater standardization as overcrowding at institutions impacted the available human and institutional resources.  During this era private institutions had a more difficult time keeping up with the growing need for HEIs as compared to public colleges and universities.  However, much of this demand was accommodated by an increase in “public community colleges which, from 1965 to 1972, were opened at a rate exceeding one per week” (Geiger, 2016, p. 25).


The 1960s were also a time of significant progress for African American and other minority college students.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would end racial segregation in all public facilities including HEIs (Zitko, 2017).  Additionally, graduate and research education increased as federal funding augmented education in the sciences.  This was likely due, at least in part, to the ongoing Cold War and Space Race of the 1960s (Jenks & Riesman, 2017).


One of the most significant developments in higher education occurred between 1975 and 1995.  In 1975 HEI enrollments included 55 percent male students.  By 1995 this shifted to 55 percent female enrollment in higher education (Geiger, 2016).  This represented a paradigmatic swing from male to female ascendancy as the predominant academic population.  Notwithstanding, the latter part of the 20th century was marked by a steep increase in tuition rates.  Public institutions increased student fees which would give rise to a growing number of private institutions (Geiger, 2016).  A byproduct of increased tuition costs was the development of a “loan culture” which has endured through the early 21st century (Geiger, 2016, p. 28). It is now well-accepted by many college students that they will have steep loans to pay back after graduation (Johnstone, 2016).  Funding challenges, however, is not an issue peculiar to the student.  As Sezonova, Galchenko, and Khodirevskaya (2016) have noted, HEIs in the 21st century are also facing a financial dilemma.  The competition for scarce financial resources has prevented many institutions from achieving optimal levels performance as providers of higher education.


Technological Innovations Impacting Higher Education in America


Technological innovations in higher education were somewhat limited from the 17th century through the end of the 19th century (Geiger, 2016).  Nonetheless, some modest innovations would occur at the turn of the 20th century.  This included the emergence of correspondence courses, scholarly journals, and substantive university publications (Geiger, 2016).  Albeit, innovative technologies in higher education begin in earnest during the 1950s and 1960s, at least in part, as a byproduct of the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.


As early as 1959, with the advent of PLATO, a computer-based education project by Daniel Alpert and Don Bitzer, students at the University of Illinois were able to attend virtual classes (Valentine, 2014).  By 1989, just two years before the World Wide Web was introduced, The University of Phoenix began offering courses on CompuServe (Kentnor, 2015).  The internet was actually established in the late 1960s as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense but was not a widely used tool among civilian populations until after Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in the early 1990s (Andrews, 2013).


There is little doubt that the internet, and by extension online learning, has been the most significant technological advancement in higher education.  Today, higher education is a worldwide phenomenon as the internet provides access to students across the globe (Kentnor, 2015).  Public and private institutions alike have turned to the internet as a viable and meaningful mode of education.  As Sener (2012) describes, “American education is entering the age of cybersymbiosis—irretrievably dependent on digital technologies” (Loc. 76).


The Future of Higher Education


The future of higher education, as in the past, will be driven by historical, societal, and technological shifts which give rise to new academic regimes and processes.  While some visionaries may have been able to predict innovations like the internet, most people living in American prior to the 1990s could not have imagined the impact this new technology would have on the lives of people around the world.  The “cyberization” of education will continue to grow, quite likely, in ways that are yet to be imagined (Sener, 2012, Loc. 93).  Globalization and new technologies will open the doors of education to a growing number of students.  Perhaps the next era of higher education will include the cyber-somatic presence of a virtual professor in the comfort of a students own home or office.  Language barriers may be overcome by technology that instantaneously translates lectures into a wide variety of languages and dialects.  Yet, these notions may seem quite trite to students in the next era of higher education who may actually realize novel innovations such as these and many more.




The structure and leadership of higher education in America and the United States has transformed as the result of social, cultural, political, and technological changes.  The religious underpinnings of higher education in the 16th and 17th centuries changed to accommodate evolving norms inspired by the liberal thought of The Enlightenment.  The American Revolution, the subsequent Civil War and two World Wars would result in new socio-political norms and the ability of a greater number of individuals to acquire a college education.  Contentious historical events like the Cold War have given rise to new technologies which have enhanced student learning and given rise to new forms of higher education.  Social and cultural movements like those of the Founding, Reconstruction, Progressive, and Civil Rights Eras have made no less impact on higher education.  This does not suggest that war and strife are warranted or are the desired stimulus for higher education reform, instead it demonstrates the resilience of higher education in America.  Indeed, higher education in America and the United States is characterized by progress, and greater inclusion over time (Jencks & Riesman, 2017).




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Higher Education Institutions: Past, Present, and Future © 2017 by Peter A. Zitko is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

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