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Pathways in the Past: Historical Perspectives on Access to Higher Education

by Scott Gelber - 2007


Although increasing numbers of scholars have begun to focus on student experiences, research on the history of underrepresented populations’ transition to college is still in its formative stage. The classic histories of higher education have tended to focus on university infrastructure and intellectual life rather than on student experiences. In addition, historians studying college enrollment generally have not used the policy frameworks of preparation, access, finance, and completion as their central analytical categories. Instead, most historians have organized their work around individual institutions and the categories of race, gender, and class.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study

This article explores the question of what historical scholarship might contribute to current campaigns for equal access to higher education.

Research Design

This study was a literature review of all historical scholarship on college access produced in the last twenty five years. Literature was identified by searches on ERIC, Academic Search Premier, and JSTOR, and by consulting the references of the most commonly cited works in this field. For purposes of analysis, the review is divided into sections on “Preparation,” “Admissions,” “Finance,” and “Retention.” Each section highlights potential implications for contemporary thinking about college access and recommends future areas for historical inquiry. This essay does not claim to be an exhaustive survey of all historical scholarship on college access. Instead, the article focuses on work representing broad themes and major debates in the historiography as well as scholarship which touches most directly on transitions to college.


First, evidence from the nineteenth century suggests that even elite liberal arts colleges can take an active role in providing college preparation while still remaining true to other aspects of their academic mission. Secondly, although the increasing interest in “merit” once served to expand access to college by opening admissions to academically skilled but socially or economically marginalized students, it became a hurdle for equal access by the final third of the twentieth century. Since colleges have struggled to articulate a consistent measurement of student merit, it is unclear if it is possible to determine a coherent or constructive college mission based on this concept. Third, market forces have occasionally motivated institutions to expand access to underrepresented populations, state intervention has generally been necessary to increase access to college. Finally, the most powerful lesson that history can provide may be reminding politicians that experts have typically underestimated the extent of the demand for higher education by both students and employers.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 10, 2007, p. 2252-2286
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12566, Date Accessed: 6/16/2021 7:08:59 AM

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About the Author
  • Scott Gelber
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    SCOTT GELBER is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University who specializes in the social, political, and intellectual history of education in the United States. His dissertation, “Academic Populism and Public Higher Education, 1875-1900” explores the impact of the populist movement on state colleges and universities in Kansas, Nebraska, and North Carolina. A former high school history teacher, Scott also advises student-teachers at the Graduate School of Education.
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