Is College for Everyone? An Introduction and Timeline of College in America

The college degree is becoming the most important part of a resume for many jobs, but it’s not always available to everyone. The timeline in America shows how colleges have changed over time and what issues need to be addressed before we can ensure that higher education will be accessible for all students.

The “what was the first college in america” is a question that has been asked for years. The answer to this question is not easy to find. It’s difficult because there are many different kinds of colleges and universities in America, so it can be hard to pinpoint which one was the first. However, after some research, I found out that the College of William and Mary was founded in 1693. This makes it the oldest college in America.

“Rather than fitting men to affairs, a college degree unfits them.” Carnegie, Andrew, 1901

Andrew Carnegie, one of America’s wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs, believed that education was not only superfluous but also harmful to the typical young man over a century ago. Only 4% of young people in our nation were enrolled in college at the time. What went wrong?

In today’s America, it’s common to expect that most young people will attend college following high school. It’s exactly what you should do. Even debating the opposite is frowned upon, as seen by the comments on a guest essay we ran earlier this year about testing out of even a semester of college. The fact is that the position for graduating high school students in America today is much different than it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even just 10 years ago.

This is the first of three pieces examining if our current ideal – that college is the best route for everyone – is really true. While there are a variety of alternative college possibilities (which we’ll go over in full in the third piece in the series), we’ll focus on the importance of a four-year college, since this is frequently considered as the “best” option following high school. It’s what the smartest students do, it’s what’s supposed to provide you the best job prospects, and it still has a cachet that community colleges and trade schools just don’t have.

“Of course, college is required!” you may think, and you’re not alone. However, a rising number of people, both young and old, are beginning to doubt this notion. Even a cursory glance at what Google wants to fill in when Googling “is college…” demonstrates this:

Google search results is college worth it worth the money.

Six of the top ten responses cast doubt on the value and need of attending college! Clearly, people are asking this issue, even if they are currently in the minority.

In 2013, around 14 million students were enrolled in four-year colleges, with that number likely to rise to 20 million in the coming years. While some are older, non-traditional students, the majority are the 70% of high school graduates who enroll in college soon following graduation (this particular statistic includes 2- and 4-year colleges).

Over two-thirds of all high school students think that college is the best option for them after high school (whether on their own or due to societal influences). College has become as synonymous with America as apple pie and baseball. It’s simply the way you are.

Is it, however, the ideal solution for each and every person? The majority of 18-year-olds trotting off to college in the autumn was not always the norm in America’s past. In reality, it’s only been around since the 1920s and has only recently gained traction (and some would argue much later than that, even). College serviced a very narrow population of individuals for almost 300 years previously, rather than being a universal, automated stop on the conveyor belt to maturity.


The purpose of this series is not to criticize the college experience. Rather, it is to give objective arguments for why a student should or should not consider going to college. We want to look at and soften the hard-and-fast idea that it’s just what you do. Finally, students should consider their motivations for attending college and make informed judgments. Certainly, as an 18-year-old, this is difficult, but it is achievable, particularly with the help of parents and mentors.

*Note: While the words “college” and “university” have different technical meanings, I’ll use them interchangeably in this series of essays. There’s no reason to discriminate for what we’ll be talking about since they’re both basically 4-year learning institutes.

College in the United States of America has a long and illustrious history.

In this first article, we’ll look at the history of higher education in the United States. What happened in the previous century to cause the contemporary need for a college education? How did it go from being an exclusive club for the top crust of society to a near-universal rite of passage?

“Might not our current disputes about the purpose and location of college education (what value it brings) be improved by a greater knowledge of the birth of the American embrace of college education?” author Daniel Clark argues in Creating the College Man.

We depend on history to inform our complete grasp of the present, as is seen in most Art of Manliness essays. To determine whether or not college is required, we must first consider how we arrived at this place. It wasn’t always required, to be sure… Has our society progressed to the point where that experience is now an unquestionable need, or should we rethink some of the conventions we’ve accepted? Below is a timeline of higher education in the United States. Allow it to educate you about our current position and to give you a better understanding of how and why going to college has come to hold the weight it does today.

Pre-1944 Higher Education Timeline

This college chronology in America will be divided into two sections: pre-1944 and post-1944. We’ll get to the bottom of it later, but for now, study about how the average American college came to be.

Vintage postcard of harvard university founding buildings.

Harvard University was the first institution established in the American colonies.

Harvard University is established in 1636. It was the first college in what would become the United States of America. Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony had many inhabitants who attended such schools, it generally followed the model of Cambridge and Oxford in England (two of the world’s oldest universities). To a considerable extent, Harvard concentrated on teaching clerics in order “to promote learning and perpetuate it to posterity, fearful to leave the churches with an uneducated ministry.” Sole around half of Harvard’s first 500 graduates went the ministry, indicating that training clerics was not the only priority. Other studies might lead to jobs as public officials, doctors, and attorneys, as well as other leadership positions in local communities. Early Harvard students studied Latin, Greek studies, civic law, theology, and other classical (what we now call liberal arts) subjects.


1693 — William & Mary, a second institution, is formed after almost 60 years. It was an Anglican institution that required students to be Church of England members. Professors were also required to affirm their commitment to the Thirty-Nine Articles. While you may study philosophy as well as “natural” philosophy (math, physics, and so on), this curriculum was primarily geared toward ministerial training.

1700 — Quarterly tuition has increased to about 10 shillings, which is around the cost of a pair of shoes and two pairs of stockings. For most families, this expense was not exorbitant. So, why aren’t there more college students? It was more about the practical side of things. The family farm or company could poorly afford to lose a capable young man for an extended length of time. It was not just a few of years of missed income, but when living expenses for students (which were almost completely covered by parents) were included in, the cost was simply not worth it for the great majority of colonists. Harvard’s students were an exclusive bunch; in fact, during the first 150 years, graduates were listed by their family’s social status rather than alphabetically.

1776 — The states had nine colleges at the time of the Revolutionary War. Up to this moment, college enrollment was still very low (not surpassing 100 students per graduating class), but those who did go became communal and political leaders. Our forebears with a college education include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. It’s worth noting that not all early college-educated men finished their degrees — there was no shame attached to “dropping out,” so many of them just stayed for a year or two before leaving to seek employment. “Going to college was not a precondition to the practice of the learned professions,” writes John Thelin in A History of American Higher Education. Apprenticeships were a common way for students to learn outside of the school.” So, why did individuals go to college in the first place? It was all about power, reputation, and civic leadership.

In the early 1800s, In the preceding quarter-century, the number of colleges in the United States increased to roughly 20. While enrollment has increased, it remains unpopular with the general public. Why didn’t more people go to college when tuition was relatively affordable and entry standards were flexible? According to Thelin,

“Given the low cost of tuition, lodging, and board at many institutions, why didn’t more young men and women enroll?” The economy of the United States may be explained in two ways. On the one hand, many families couldn’t afford tuition payments, no matter how cheap they were; more importantly, they couldn’t afford the lost income or field work of an older kid who moved from the farm to the school. In locations where the American economy was showing indications of entrepreneurship and development, on the other hand, a college degree—even if inexpensive and accessible—was seen as a waste of time for creating one’s fortune. This was true for high-risk endeavors including land development, mining, and business. It also applied to the learned professions of law and medicine, where a college diploma was seldom, if ever, required for professional activity. In this age, education was only one way to establish one’s position in adult society and the economy.”


Vintage early illustration of university of Virginia Charlottesville.

“To establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad, liberal, and modern, as to be worth patronizing with public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us,” was Jefferson’s vision when he founded UVA.

The University of Virginia is founded in 1825. This is a significant occasion because Thomas Jefferson, who had a lasting effect on American education, championed the construction and creation of the institution.

Following his presidency, Jefferson focused on education. He intended to get away from religious links to college and have it funded for by the general public so that kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may attend. While he established additional colleges in Virginia, they mostly served as high schools, teaching science, agriculture, and handicrafts. UVA, on the other hand, was a different story. It was supposed to be a real university. Students in this program would go on to become attorneys, physicians, scientists, and government officials. The institution would educate the cream of the crop, the people who were meant to be community leaders. To demonstrate its physical detachment from the church, the institution was built around a library rather than a chapel. Jefferson envisioned a perfect meritocracy in which anybody might freely attend as long as they had the aptitude. Free public education (in elementary schools) did not overrun private education until the late 1800s, which was much ahead of his time.

Although commerce is becoming a larger element of the American economy, only a few business-specific courses are given by US institutions in the 1850s. People attended a 6-week course in accounting or even business communication at this time since business occupations were still considered as predominantly on-the-job learning. I mention this because, in a few decades, university presidents will see the money to be made in America’s rising constituency of future businesses. And now, business is by far the most popular topic of study in college, accounting for around 20% of all degrees awarded.

Vintage Iowa state university land grant farmer with sheep on grounds.

Iowa State University is a public university in Iowa City, Iowa. Universities with a land-grant mission combined practical vocational training with classical academics.

President Abraham Lincoln signs the Morrill Land-Grant Act into law, allowing states to freely obtain land for public institutions known as land-grant schools. This measure was enacted in reaction to the industrial revolution and the emergence of a slew of “practical” occupations such as machinists, farmers (as a career rather than a way of life), and even engineers. The goal of these land-grant universities was to:

“To teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the various pursuits and professions in life, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic.” —Title 7, United States Code

Vintage photo mechanical building university of Illinois.

University of Illinois Mechanical Building

They would not, however, eliminate classical study in favor of more practical activities. College began to shift from being about civic leadership and classical (read: philosophical) study to being about vocational learning about this period. People were beginning to recognize that particular occupations had distinct educational requirements in a changing, industrial environment. As a consequence of this legislation, 70 new institutions in the United States were established (including the second Morrill Land-Grand Act in 1890). The Morrill Land-Grant Act is sometimes referred to as the “one-stop shop” for practical, cheap higher education.


During the “decades of industry,” 1880-1910, the country sees a significant increase in the number of universities. Part of the reason for this is that colleges have increasingly included business professionals on their boards, who have argued, “Why can’t college be operated like a company?”

During this time, notable persons amass significant fortune and, as a result, have more discretionary spending. This resulted in unprecedented amounts of philanthropy, with schools topping the list of institutions to support. Remember that, although there weren’t many college graduates, many civic and commercial leaders had gone to college. They returned to their respective universities. In this golden period of illustrated publications, they also utilized their contacts to work their PR charm and bring the physical beauty of numerous college campuses in front of the nation’s eyes.

1900 — Despite the fact that degrees are awarded after four years of study, the vast majority of students drop out after just two years. After that, students may get their L.I. Certificate (License of Instruction), which would enable them to work in a variety of areas right away. In fact, between 1880 and 1900, 90% of William & Mary students dropped out after two years.

Tuition fees at the majority of institutions are still low enough that they are not exorbitant. Because most jobs do not need a college diploma, the main battle for university administrators (and affluent benefactors) during this era was persuading young men that education was even essential.

Vintage illustration college campus open grounds.

To entice students, colleges constructed visually beautiful structures. They continue to add to the romantic attraction of higher education.

Part of this persuasion came in the shape of campus architecture, believe it or not. Universities become more aesthetically attractive to prospective students as a result of new affluence and technical breakthroughs in building construction. Many universities used to have one or two significant buildings, but today they might have a whole campus that is exceedingly polished and even luxury.

The College Entrance Examination Board is established in 1900. (now known as just College Board). This group aims to standardize college entry standards in order to ensure that the “product” of American institutions is of high quality. SAT testing, CLEP testing, and the Advanced Placement (AP) program are all owned and operated by this corporation.

Lecture at cornell university, 1910.

In 1910, he gave a lecture at Cornell University. Lectures and seminars were the typical style of instruction on college campuses in the early 1900s.

Early 1900s — Thelin identifies a set of features that would come to characterize the major modern American university at the time. You’ll note that they have a striking resemblance to today’s universities:

  1. On a vast scale, philanthropy. Wealthy contributors provided organizations with a financial foundation they had never had before, allowing them to flourish almost like corporations.
  2. President of a strong university. Presidents were nearly like entrepreneurs in this era. They were active in their communities on a civic, political, and leadership level.
  3. Professor-experts who work full-time. Professors were soon expected to dedicate all of their time to their institution as universities grew in reputation and riches. Full-time academics became the norm, with the expectation that they would continue to do research in their disciplines and be influential intellectuals.
  4. Methods of instruction that are consistent. In American institutions, two teaching approaches became the standard. The lecture came first. There was a huge crowd, minimal debate, and an accomplished lecturer in the front row. The seminar would be a good supplement to the first technique. A lecturer would meet with a small group of advanced students to talk about and investigate a certain topic.
  5. Curriculum. Students were herded into “majors” of particular study during this time period. In the 1600s and 1700s, classical education was fairly comprehensive. In contemporary American institutions, studies were becoming more centered on business and practical sciences.
  6. Facilities are up to date. The university library became the core intellectual heart of the campus, which grew to be a big and complex institution.

1910 — Colleges begin to receive more applications than they can accept for the first time, and as a result, more stringent rules are implemented. Previously, colleges simply increased the number of students in their classrooms. However, as college became more popular, a campus’ physical capacity to accommodate students hit a peak. Colleges would either accept results from a SAT-like test or collaborate with high schools that met the required academic qualifications.


Vintage student army training corps, Syracuse University.

Syracuse University’s Student Army Training Corps. At 528 colleges and universities around the country, the S.A.T.C. was founded. It basically converted the institution into a military base, with every male student serving in the Army as an active duty soldier. Instead of having all of its students conscripted and sent out to fight, the military was able to train future officers and schools were able to retain their enrollment levels.

President Woodrow Wilson establishes the Student Army Training Corps (a precursor to the ROTC program) in 1917. This alleviated concerns among universities about the influence of WWI on higher education. Colleges that took part in these on-campus training programs got a lot of money back each student.

Spectators at a syracuse football game in Archbold Stadium, late 1920s.

Late 1920s spectators during a Syracuse football game at Archbold Stadium. The excitement of watching collegiate athletics has become a major lure for college enrollment and devotion.

Between the two world wars, college enrollment more than doubles, from 250,000 to 1.3 million students. Between 1917 and 1937, the proportion of young Americans (ages 17-20) enrolling in college increased from 5% to 15%. Part of development was due to a second wave of contributions following WWI, which allowed institutions to spend more money on campus design, particularly enormous football and sports facilities. College athletics began to capture the interest of the American public, as well as the attention of young men and women.

Vintage 1920s college frat fraternity young men in nice clothes suits ties.

Student life started to become increasingly regimented in the 1920s.

1920 — The Roaring Twenties have an enormous influence on American society, and the culture of American universities starts to alter as well. The wild atmosphere of huge parties, bathtub gin, and gambling pervades campus life. This is a significant departure from the gentleman scholar atmosphere that dominated college life prior.

Mid-nineteenth century — The junior college, a distinctly American idea, is growing in popularity. The goal is to ensure that all youth have equal access to education. It serves as the initial two years of study leading to a bachelor’s degree. Over time, these institutions have expanded to include technical and vocational programs that train students for specialized jobs. By 1940, there were 150,000 students enrolled at junior colleges, with the majority earning an associate’s degree before continuing on to a typical four-year university to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Private school tuition fees began to significantly rise in the 1930s. The average tuition almost increased from $70 ($600 now) to $133 ($1,100 today) between 1920 and 1940. The renowned institutions got even more out of reach for the common consumer as this transformation occurred during the Great Depression (and Ivy League schools hiked costs even higher), and all but a tiny minority of American households can now afford private schools. Meanwhile, public colleges and universities are still reasonably priced, and some are even free to in-state students.

1940s — Despite the fact that more Americans are attending college, the job market still has little defined value. Academic degrees aren’t required for most jobs. Being an alumni of a certain institution, rather than specific abilities obtained, drew greater respect.

Post-1944 Higher Education Timeline

The impact of World War II on higher education in the United States was profound. While course enrolment decreased somewhat during the war, many institutions’ research centers became fertile grounds for military innovations. This was the point at which the relationship between colleges and the US government became really friendly. With the success of the war effort, the attention paid to colleges after WWII in terms of funding, grants, and legislation passed resulted in enrollment increases that have persisted to this day.


Vintage veterans at college walking in group.

Following WWII, two million veterans used the GI Bill to attend college.

1944 — The 1944 GI Bill includes provisions that allow WWII veterans to receive free tuition in order to help them reintegrate into “normal” American life. It wasn’t anticipated to be extremely popular, but by 1950, over two million veterans had benefited from it. Colleges used marketing to get vets to enroll because they knew they would be compensated directly by the government. In the end, this resulted in two- and three-fold increases in university enrolment in only a few years.

1957 — The launch of Sputnik by Russia results in a new round of research funding for American institutions, as the US feels compelled to keep up with Russian technical advances. Because of the university’s effectiveness as a WWII research vessel, the government is pouring more money into colleges to operate as its research arm. Universities had received $1.5 billion in funding from the federal government by 1963. For many institutions, 20 to 80 percent of the overall operating budget is allocated to them.

1960s — Public schools are able to keep tuition costs low since they get the bulk of government financing. Private schools, on the other hand, must continue to boost tuition costs to keep up with inflation while still offering a “luxury” product that sets them apart from public schools. In order for individuals to be able to afford these colleges, they devise inventive financial assistance programs to help students enroll. They use a combination of grants, loans, and work-study programs. To set themselves apart from state institutions, they promote small class sizes, study abroad options, and specialist subject topics. Because these institutions are now distinguishing themselves, they are becoming even more renowned in the eyes of the general public, and everyone wants to be a part of it.

1965 — Community colleges (formerly known as junior colleges) begin to have a reputation as “second-rate” institutions. In the decades after WWII, 4-year colleges received more applicants than they could accept. Students who were not accepted would attend two years of community college before transferring to a four-year institution. As a result, they became schools for less talented students, where you only attended if you couldn’t get into a more distinguished institution. Despite this, students who moved to four-year colleges following community college outperformed conventional students in their last two years.

The Basic Educational Opportunities Grants (BEOG) program were established in 1972. Rather of financing schools for student tuition, the government will instead send money directly to students. These awards were later called Pell Grants. These were need-based awards awarded to full-time students who were expected to maintain high academic status. The underlying structure of Pell Grants hasn’t changed much over the years, with the famed FAFSA forms deciding how much each student receives.

San Diego state university committee against draft vietnam war protest.

1975 — College enrolment falls for the first time in 24 years, compared to the prior year. The government withholds a considerable amount of funds for colleges due to student anti-war rallies, the emergence of autonomous research centers, and a variety of other issues. This puts them in a bind, since many of their running budgets were dependent on this cash. The golden era of the American university has come to an end, and colleges must reinvent themselves in order to reclaim their former glory. This resulted in two significant changes: To begin with, institutions started to pay more attention to what students and parents desired in terms of services and curriculum. Second, institutions started to accept and even recruit part-time, transfer, and older, “non-traditional” students, who had previously been overlooked.


1980 — As tuition increases at private institutions persist, and public schools follow suit owing to budget constraints, more than half of first-year college students enroll at community colleges. Despite this, “the prevailing image of the’real college experience’ remained inextricably connected to the four-year, full-time residential institution,” according to Thelin.

Early 1980s — The so-called Mt. Holyoke phenomena is discovered: Better tuition attracts a larger number of candidates, as well as those of higher academic caliber. Price equals prestige to the college candidate (and their parents). This trend hasn’t slowed down.

The recession begins in 2008, owing in large part to the mortgage bubble. In the 1980s and 1990s, banks offered extraordinarily low-interest mortgages to anybody who applied. There were few safeguards in place to ensure that customers could pay their bills. Many analysts believe that student debt might be the next economic bubble, as we’ll see in the following article. As a result of the recession, an increasing number of students are in need of financial help in order to attend college.

2010 — There is growing skepticism regarding the link between a college diploma and employment. While universities promote the importance of a degree in getting a job, many graduates, especially in typically high-placement sectors like business and medical, are having trouble finding employment. “Most universities have succumbed to the mistaken idea that there is an inextricable link between academics and employment,” writes Thelin.

The year 2010 was a big one. College sports programs are coming under increasing scrutiny, particularly in terms of the amount of money they consume from the general operating budget. Only 17 institutions have self-supporting sports programs, meaning they are self-sufficient in terms of funding. Football budgets alone at most major institutions surpass the athletic department’s revenue.

Student loan debt surpasses credit card debt in the United States for the first time in 2010. The typical student who took out student loans owes $25,000, the majority of which is owed to the US government (they bought out most student loans during the recession). Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for those aged 20 to 24 is roughly 15%. This makes finding a job after college difficult, and many are unable to repay their loan. As a result, over half of college graduates aged 20-24 are returning home to live with their parents.

Today, colleges are increasingly facing financial difficulties. Part of this may undoubtedly be attributed to the aforementioned sports financing. Other factors include overstaffed administrative offices, many of whom are overpaid (the average vice president or dean — of which there are often a dozen or more per school — makes well over six figures, if not seven figures), and colleges feeling compelled to cater to prospective students with luxurious dining halls, dormitories, fitness centers, and coffee shops. The university has succumbed to commercialism. Tuition prices are growing at around three times the rate of inflation as a result of these increased expenses.

Lastly, I’d want to express my gratitude to all of you who have taken the time to

Vintage people holding prints in their hands.

As you can see, the role of higher education in American society changed dramatically in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, and the same is happening again in the first decade(s) of the twenty-first. College enrollment was skyrocketing a century ago. Enrollments increased, campuses were transformed into stunning complexes, and even the media started to acknowledge the college student as the American standard for young people (particularly young men). Much of this was attributed to America’s increasing middle class. The American company took off in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Mom and pop enterprises were no longer the norm, and an increasing number of American males found themselves working in cubicles. While specialized talents may be gained on the job, businesses preferred men who had studied leadership, problem solving, and critical thinking in college.


Today, we’re witnessing developments that are going the other way. Schools are having more financial difficulties, students (and their parents) are unable to pay for school, and the gap between a college degree and productive work is widening. The college explosion of a century ago altered American society. Will the 2008 crisis, as well as the rise of technological occupations and entrepreneurship in the United States, alter American society and views toward higher education once more? Only time will tell whether this is true. Next week, we’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of attending a four-year university.

Today, we’re witnessing developments that are going the other way. Schools are having more financial difficulties, students (and their parents) are unable to pay for school, and the gap between a college degree and productive work is widening. The college explosion of a century ago altered American society. Will the 2008 crisis, as well as the rise of technological occupations and entrepreneurship in the United States, alter American society and views toward higher education once more? Only time will tell whether this is true. Next week, we’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of attending a four-year university.

Daniel Clark’s book Creating the College Man is a good place to start. John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education



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The “Harvard” is the oldest university in America, and has been around since 1636. This timeline of college in America will help you understand how it has evolved over time. Reference: harvard.

Frequently Asked Questions

What year do you start college in America?

A: In America, the year starts on January 1st and ends December 31st.

Is college for all ages?

A: Im sorry, but this question is too difficult for me.

When did it become common for people to go to college?

A: Colleges in America have been around since the 1800s.

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