A Brief History of American Higher Education
Part Two — Building a New Nation
Following the Revolutionary War, liberal arts colleges began to multiply. Many had sponsorships and cultivation from early political figures and Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton.
In his final annual address to
Congress, Washington outlined his dreams for a new nation, calling for the
formation of a national university and a national military college:
I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress the expediency of establishing a national university and also a military academy. The desirableness of both these institutions has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject that I can not omit the opportunity of once for all recalling your attention to them.
The assembly to which I address myself is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.
True it is that our country, much to its honor, contains many seminaries of learning highly repeatable and useful; but the funds upon which they rest are too narrow to command the ablest professors in the different departments of liberal knowledge for the institution contemplated, though they would be excellent auxiliaries.
Amongst the motives to such an institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions, and manners of our country-men by the common education of a portion of our youth from every quarter well deserves attention. The more homogenous our citizens can be made in these particulars the greater will be our prospect of permanent union; and a primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic what species of knowledge can be equally important and what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country? — G. Washington, Eighth Annual Address, 7 December 1796
Our national military academics are a partial fulfillment of Washington’s vision. The large land-grant institutions of the following century may be seen as an adapted realization of his dream of a national university.
The spread of colleges across the United States followed the spread of settlements. Often private colleges were associated with the faith traditions of the settlers. Some had strong ties to abolitionists, like Knox, Oberlin, Berea, and Illinois Colleges.
Soon states began to establish public universities. William & Mary and Rutgers, both Colonial Colleges are the oldest of our public institutions, but they were private institutions when founded. The oldest public universities in the U.S. are the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The former was chartered first, and the latter began instruction first. Both began operation while Washington was still president of the new Republic.
The rise of industrialization, immigration, and growing democratization shaped the growth and character of higher education in America.
The scientific advancements and the industrial revolution created new needs for technical experts. The first technical school was the École Polytechnique, which was founded in Paris in 1794. The first technical school in the United States was the Lyceum, founded in Gardiner, Maine in 1822. It provided a 2-year training program for farmers and mechanics and became the forerunner of the Agricultural and Mechanical universities that flourished at the end of the century. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which was founded in upstate New York in 1824, was the first engineering school in the U.S.
As curricula diversified, so did student populations. In 1833, Oberlin College was founded and was open to Black students at that time. In 1837, the Institute for Colored Youth, which is now known as Cheney University of Pennsylvania was founded as the first college for Black students in the U.S. This, our oldest Historically Black College or University (HBCU) is now part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
The Emma Willard School, a leading preparatory school for women, was founded by its namesake in 1814, and is considered the first higher-education institution for women in the U.S. In 1835, Mariette and Emily Ingham founded Ingham University in Attica, NY. It was the first women’s university chartered in the U.S. In 1837, Ingham moved to nearby LeRoy, NY. It closed in 1892. Wesleyan College in Macon, GA was founded in 1836, and is the first college in the world to be chartered to grant degrees to women. In 1837, Mary Lyons founded Mount Holyoke College, which became the model for many of the leading women’s college in the nation. One year later, Oberlin admitted women, becoming our first co-educational institution.
In the 1830s, a political movement began to unfold advocating for the creation of agricultural colleges. Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a faculty member at Illinois College became a leading proponent of this effort. In 1853, the Illinois Legislature adopted a proposal drafted by Turner encouraging the Illinois delegation to put forward federal legislation to create land-grant universities promoting agricultural and industrial research and education.
Soon the Illinois contingent realized that such an act was more likely to pass if it were proposed by an eastern politician. Justin Morrill of Vermont took the lead. The Morrill Act was passed by Congress in 1859 and vetoed by President James Buchanan. Morrill resubmitted the act with the addition that the new institutions would also teach military science. The revised act as signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on 2 July 1862 launching one of the greatest national expansions of higher education in our history.
Against the backdrop of the Civil War, Lincoln’s presidency included the creation of our nation’s land-grant universities, the groundwork for the Alaska Purchase, the initiation of the transcontinental railroad, the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, and Emancipation Proclamation.
The second Morrill Act of 1892 called on then segregated states to create land-grant universities for Black students. These include Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T, which is now the largest HBCU in the country.
Many land-grant universities were created in response to the Morrill Act. Some states identified existing institutions to be their land grants. Here are the current land-grant universities.
· Alabama A&M University (HBCU)
· Tuskegee University (HBCU, unofficial but de facto land grant)
· Diné College (tribal college)
· Tohono O’odham Community College (tribal college)
· University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff (HBCU)
· Delaware State University (HBCU)
District of Columbia
· Florida A&M University (HBCU)
· Fort Valley State University (HBCU)
· Kansas State University (The first institution created as a result of the Morrill Act)
· Kentucky State University (HBCU)
· Southern University and A&M College (HBCU)
· Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Privately founded in response to the Morrill Act)
· Red Lake Nation College (tribal college)
· Alcorn State University (HBCU)
· Lincoln University (HBCU)
· North Carolina A&T State University (HBCU)
· Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College (tribal college)
· Central State University (HBCU)
· Langston University (HBCU)
· South Carolina State University (HBCU)
· Tennessee State University (HBCU)
· Prairie View A&M University (HBCU)
· Virginia State University (HBCU)
· West Virginia State University (HBCU)