It’s pretty easy (inevitable maybe) to take for granted the opportunities and privileges we have in life. One of those is the chance to participate in this community of learning that we call Rowan University. So, as the holiday of Thanksgiving approaches, let us take a moment to consider and give thanks for our chance to be a part of this institution of higher education.
Higher education in the U.S. didn’t begin until around 1636, when the first college – Harvard – was established. By the time of the American Revolutionary War, there were 9 colleges/seminaries in the U.S. Of course, they only admitted white men and generally had less than 100 students each. These schools were primarily created to train men in religion, and were established by religious groups (Presbyterians established the College of NJ during that period – it is now Princeton).
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many more colleges were established. They weren’t particularly expensive, but they were rather elite. White men were the only enrollees, and most of them were from upper class families, because they could afford the lost income of having an adult in school – rather than working – for the time of the college attendance. Most of those who attended never graduated with a degree.
In 1837, a woman was admitted to Oberlin College, thereby beginning the U.S. history of co-ed schools of higher education. They weren’t common, however. During the mid-1800s, there was an increase of women enrolling in all female “normal schools” to train as teachers. By the 1870s, over 95 colleges were admitting women into a co-ed environment.
During that same period, higher education as a whole also became somewhat more racially diverse. In 1854, the first African American male college was established. In 1962, James Meridith became the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi – U.S. marshals were needed to get him safely onto campus. In 1881, the first college for African American women, Spellman, was created. These schools created new opportunities for black individuals in the U.S.
While the mid-late 1800s created somewhat more racial and sex diversity, higher education remained the domain of those with money. Not considered a need for most occupations, a degree was simply something that most families could not afford.
In the late 1800s to 1910, many “land grant” universities were established, following the Morrill Act. This marked the beginning of the support of state and federal government for higher education and a marked increase in schools offering graduate programs, and becoming universities, rather than colleges.
During the period between 1940-1970s, many things happened to increase the diversity and availability of college education for U.S. citizens. In 1944, the GI bill was passed, providing tuition funding for veterans and enabling far more individuals of lower socioeconomic groups to attend college/university. The same year, the United Negro College Fund was established, also providing means for greater economic diversity in students. Over this same period, there was an increase in support by federal and state agencies, and by the 70s, financial aid (in the form of Pell grants and loans) was firmly established.
From these historical developments, we have created a culture in which many people can and do attend institutions of higher education, both colleges and universities. While greater diversity, in many ways, is still a goal, it is now possible for students of every race, both sexes, and a full range of socioeconomic statuses to pursue a degree. This enhances both the lives of those who attend and the learning communities of which they become a part.
As Thanksgiving draws close, let us all be thankful that, given the many changes in higher education – legal and cultural – over the last several centuries, we have the opportunity to be here, together, learning and sharing. Thank you for being a part of this culture of learning with me.