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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.

As part of their preparation for Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the NAACP asked several historians to determine whether the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to desegregate public schools. During the summer of 1953, Horace Mann Bond, C. Vann Woodward, and John Hope Franklin conducted research on the amendment’s political and social context. By demonstrating that the original spirit of the amendment was broad and egalitarian, these historians contributed to the formulation of the NAACP’s legal strategy (Kluger, 1975, 2004). Rather than marking the beginning of a sustained relationship between historians, lawyers, and policy-makers, this episode stands out as an exceptional case. Fifty years later, historians have still not fully documented the ways in which prior discrimination have shaped current inequalities in educational access and achievement. According to James Anderson, historians of higher education have remained “disconnected” from political questions, despite the fact that law and public policy are frequently based upon historical assumptions (Mattingly, Anderson, Church, Curran, & Tobias, 2004).

This disconnect is not a simple case of apathy within the ranks of historians. Unlike activists, historians tend to be wary of drawing overt connections between past and present policy debates. Even as Woodward was assisting the Brown plaintiffs, he advised the NAACP that his advocacy was “constrained” by the nature of his craft. Reflecting decades later upon the pressures faced by historians who relate their scholarship to current events, Woodward cautioned academics “to stay out of the kitchen if you can’t take the heat” (Vinovskis, 1999).

Sensitive to Woodward’s warnings, this essay explores what historical scholarship might contribute to advocates for equal access to higher education. This essay divides the issue of the transition to college for students from underrepresented populations into subtopics of “preparation,” “admissions,” “retention,” and “finance.” Each section of the essay summarizes what historians already know, highlights potential implications for contemporary thinking about college access, and recommends future areas for historical inquiry into college access.

Prior to the 1970s, historians had conducted very little research into college access that would have been useful to policy-makers. Most classic histories of higher education were narratives of institutional and academic expansion which made scant reference to the changing demographics of student bodies. While increasing numbers of historians have begun to focus on student experiences, our understanding of the expansion of college enrollments still pales in comparison to our knowledge of other aspects of higher education’s infrastructure and intellectual life. Whereas administrators and professors tend to leave vast paper trails, student voices are more difficult to locate in the archives. Historians have also generally focused on broader structural forces affecting students rather than on attitudinal or informational factors. Few historians have probed the significance that student choices, cultural tensions, or family expectations may have had on the growth of higher education. In addition, historians generally have not used the policy lenses of preparation, access, finance, and completion as their central analytical categories for understanding higher education. Instead, most historians have organized their work around individual institutions and the categories of race, gender, and class.

The value of historical research for policy-makers is also complicated by the discipline’s humanistic aspects. While historical research aspires to be scientific by citing data that is “reproducible” and applicable to similar circumstances, historians also often emphasize the particularity of their subject matter (Shavelson, 2002). Historical research on college access, for example, often focuses on specific campuses without exploring connections with broader principles of higher education (Mattingly et al, 2004). Even when historians ask questions about a single campus, they typically provide ambiguous findings. In fact, scholarship that reveals ambiguity and subtlety is often more respected by the historical profession than work that yields clear-cut “lessons.” In general, historians are trained to produce histories of policy rather than histories as policy. According to John Rury (1999), the discipline’s interest in exploring unanswerable questions and moral dimensions may make the historian “closer to the philosopher than to the policy analyst.” Historians seeking to produce work that might be relevant to policy-makers often find themselves caught between these conflicting frameworks (.Donato & Lazerson, 2000; Rury, 1999).


With regard to college preparation, historical nuances and ambiguities can be instructive for the politicians, officials, and administrators who shape contemporary higher education. Historical research can inform current policy discussions by demonstrating that the division between secondary and higher education has always been blurry. Institutions of higher education have almost always been compelled to take some responsibility for college preparation. Since access to public high schools was not widely available in the nineteenth century, most students seeking entrance to higher education relied upon private academies or tutors. The relatively small number of public high schools which did manage to provide high quality pre-college training primarily served a small and affluent constituency. Since colleges maintained a variety of different entrance requirements and examination formats, even graduates of these high schools were not necessarily prepared to enter the college of their choice. Even though nineteenth-century colleges enrolled a relatively small portion of the population, most still struggled to identify sufficient numbers of adequately prepared students. Many colleges invested heavily in remedial education in order to increase their pool of students. Schools routinely issued conditional acceptances to students who were not proficient in one or two subjects and then provided basic non-credit coursework in these areas. In order to meet this need, most colleges formed their own academies and preparatory departments. Enrollment in these departments often matched or surpassed enrollment in standard college courses. While institutions of higher education generally regarded these programs as necessary evils and dismantled them as soon as possible, this history challenges contemporary notions that gaps between secondary and higher education are not primarily the responsibility of colleges and universities (Brier, 1984; Labaree, 1988; Reese, 1995; Wechsler, 1977).

By the 1880s, public high school enrollment in the north had surpassed enrollment in private academies. As a result of its lower population density, the disruption of the Civil War, and elite opposition to broad educational opportunity, public high schools grew more slowly in the South. In all regions of the nation, however, many colleges sought to increase the quality and quantity of applicants from the expanding public school system by guaranteeing admission to graduates of high schools that had been certified by states or regional accreditation agencies. However, as large numbers of previously underrepresented students entered secondary education during the twentieth century, education professionals tended to reduce the academic content of curricula for all students except those in explicitly college preparatory tracks. Since high schools tended to guide working-class students and students of color into less academic tracks, the demographics of students prepared for college did not radically change despite increasing numbers of high school graduates. During the era of rapid immigration around the turn of the twentieth century, some immigrants formed private or parochial schools in order to reduce the likelihood of academic or religious discrimination, while others fought to make the public schools more responsive to their interests.

While high school graduation rates have remained under fifty percent for most of U.S. history, educators expressed relatively little concern about secondary school attrition until the 1960s. Over the past several decades, however, concern over the “dropout” problem has become widespread. Until recently, educators have tended to blame students for their academic failure rather than institutional policy or structural forces. Yet dropout prevention programs and the development of the General Education Diploma (GED) have generally failed to significantly increase retention rates. Despite the inequity of secondary education, once colleges have become able to attract enough students, they have generally made fewer interventions into the preparation of potential applicants or the remediation of students with weaker academic skills (Angus, 1999; Brumberg, 1986; Deschenes, Cuban, & Tyack, 2001; Dorn, 1997; Fass, 1989; Labaree, 1988; Perlman, 1988; Peterson, 1985; Reese, 1986, 1995; Wechsler, 1977). Historians have not yet adequately addressed the question of why inequities in preparation persisted even after the formal ideologies supporting inequality had been rejected. Although it seems unlikely that historians will discover any smoking guns, additional historical research might help to illuminate the influence of structural factors, such as institutional diversity and suburbanization, and cultural factors, such as teacher expectations and prejudices.  


Although women are no longer underrepresented in higher education, the history of this transition may help scholars to better understand the experiences of other populations.2 For example, the history of the education of young women illustrates the extent to which preparation may be a necessary precondition for the expansion of college access. In particular, antebellum female academies with rigorous academic curricula lay the foundation for the growth of women’s colleges in the Gilded Age. This history also highlights the manner in which dominant ideologies can work to expand or restrict access to schooling. While White girls were generally not viewed as equal in ability with White boys, a significant amount of education was seen as consistent with prevailing nineteenth-century ideas about White gender roles. According to the discourse of republican motherhood, education was necessary to prepare White girls for their future duties as mothers and wives in a democratic society. In contrast, beyond a small degree of religious literacy, the education of Black Americans was more likely to be viewed as an assault on prevailing notions of nineteenth-century notions of racial hierarchy. Additionally, the history of girls’ education underscores the significance of social class. Girls from affluent families have tended to be at the forefront of breaking through sex barriers in education.

Although most founders of public high schools were not interested in educating young women and some single-sex high schools remained along the northeastern seaboard and in the South, public high schools rapidly became coeducational. High school curricula in the nineteenth century were generally not differentiated by gender and young women tended to outnumber and outperform young men. In the early twentieth century, however, curricula became increasingly gendered as schools added vocational courses specifically intended for boys and home economics courses intended for girls. By the 1920s, boys began to outnumber girls in math and science classes while girls were overrepresented in commercial courses such as typing and bookkeeping. Nevertheless, scholars have concluded that these curricular distinctions remained relatively superficial. Even though many educators hoped to differentiate high school curricula by sex, girls and boys generally enrolled in similar proportions of available courses. Despite attempts to increase the retention rates of boys and discourage the academic achievement of girls, young women continued to graduate in higher numbers than young men (Angus, 1999; Beadie, 1993; Graves, 1998; Reese, 1995; Schwager, 1987; Tyack, & Hansot, , 1992).


Research on the primary and secondary school experiences of African-Americans may represent the most powerful example of the policy relevance of historical scholarship. Historians of education have thoroughly documented the twists and turns of school segregation and have begun to explore the implications of these findings.  

In the first half the nineteenth century, some free Black students enrolled in church-affiliated schools or public high schools in the north. However, northern Whites demonstrated little formal commitment to equal educational access and many northern schools excluded African-Americans altogether. A few Black communities were able to sustain African Free Schools, but they typically did not prepare students for higher education. Some Black and White abolitionists advocated for the integration of northern schools. Although many northern states outlawed segregation by the late nineteenth century, local prejudice and residential segregation generally obstructed the implementation of these laws. Since school integration tended to entail the dismissal of all Black teachers as well as the grouping of Black students in separate classrooms within White schools, African-Americans did not always mount vigorous protests against segregation. Formal schooling for African-Americans was prohibited in most southern states for free and enslaved African-Americans alike. Nevertheless, as many as five percent of enslaved persons may have obtained literacy by 1860. During Reconstruction, African-American communities and northern philanthropists established schools throughout the South. Primary schools rapidly increased literacy while academies prepared African-Americans to enter new public and private institutions of Black higher education (Durham, 2003; Homel, 1984; Reese, 1995; Tyack & Lowe, 1986).

With powerful implications for contemporary school policy, historians have been debating the extent to which these segregated schools prepared students for higher education between 1900 and 1970. Many historians have argued that despite the heroic efforts of Black educators, Black schools in both the north and the south were severely hamstrung by discrimination and unequal resources (Anyon, 1997; Dentler & Willie, 1991; Patterson, 2001; Pratt, 1992; Valencia & San Miguel, Jr., 1988). For example, Anderson (1988) criticizes the triumph of the "Hampton Model" for secondary vocational school curricula. Anderson argues that White philanthropists developed a second-class system of education by promoting this model contrary to wishes of most African-American students and teachers. While Homel (1984) argues that many of these schools managed to provide relatively equal educations to African-Americans before the 1920s, he concludes that they were crippled by persistent discrimination and economic depression before the onset of the Second World War.

In recent years, however, several historians have begun to challenge this portrait of mid-century Black schools. In particular, Celcelski (1994) and Walker (1996, 2000) both have highlighted the commitment of Black teachers, parents, and administrators as well as the strength of the curriculum and extra-curriculum. While they acknowledge the severely unequal distribution of resources, Celcelski and Walker suggest that segregated schools may have performed more valuable service to Black communities than post-Brown integrated institutions. Since quantitative data is scarce from this period, Cecelski and Walker rely substantially on the perceptions of teachers and administrators. Both historians have acknowledged the limitations of these sources, but they also urge readers to expand their definitions of school quality to include community cohesion and student identity formation. Census data revealing that Black educational attainment surpassed that of Whites in the 1950s among families with similar income levels has also been used to bolster this portrait of effective pre-Brown schooling (Bauman, 1998).

Historians who are enthusiastic about the strength of segregated Black schools tend to be skeptical about the educational benefits of the Brown decision. As a result of school integration, the Black teaching force was decimated as White administrators tended to hire teachers of their own race. It seems likely that the reduction of the numbers of Black teachers had a detrimental impact on African-American academic achievement. Segregated schools may also have been more likely to encourage Black students to prepare for college and professions. Higginbotham (2001) suggests that discriminatory college counseling at predominantly White high schools may have reduced the numbers of Black graduates who moved on to higher education. While she notes that Black students in White high schools may have received a superior academic education, Higginbotham questions whether the social and emotional costs outweighed the benefits of this experience. The backlash to school integration also may have intensified the use of testing and tracking in elementary and secondary schools in order to replace inter-institutional segregation with intra-institutional segregation (Baker, 2001; Hudson & Holmes, 1994).

Although most scholars now acknowledge the setbacks which followed the Brown decision, many still dispute the charge that school integration caused more harm than good (Klarman, 1994; Kluger, 1975, 2004; Patterson, 2001). Although they argue that desegregation improved school quality only between 1966 and 1976 and emphasize that the costs of desegregation were borne disproportionately by African-Americans, Dentler and Willie (1991) still maintain that desegregation has proven to be the most effective plan for large-scale school improvement.

Since many predominantly White colleges in the post-WWII era claimed that it was difficult for them to find enough qualified Black applicants, additional evidence of effective mid-century African-American secondary education would raise important new questions about the dynamics of integration and admissions at selective institutions of higher education. If Black high schools were effectively preparing their graduates for college-level work, it would indicate that racial discrimination and financial obstacles may have been even more significant barriers to the transition to college than has been previously assumed.


Historical scholarship on Native American education has focused most specifically on boarding schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Established by private philanthropy or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), these schools tended to be vocationally oriented and disrespectful of native cultures. Beginning slowly in 1890s, the federal government began to pay local schools that enrolled Native American students. By the 1920s, seventy-five percent of Native American children attended schools. The majority of these students enrolled in local public schools rather than BIA day schools or boarding schools. While ever greater numbers of Native Americans enrolled in schools, student retention rates remained low as students experienced great difficulty reconciling their schooling with the economics and culture of their reservations. In the 1960s, Native American educators began a concerted campaign for community control, bicultural education, and a greater emphasis on college preparation. While the cultural and political success of the community control movement is clear, these schools continued to face financial and academic challenges (Adams, 1995; Lomawaima, 1994; Mihesuah, 1993; Riney, 1998; Szasz, 1974, 1999; Trennert Jr., 1988).

Substantial research has also been conducted on the segregation and stratification of schooling for Chicanos/as. Most of this work notes the expansion of high school attendance, but highlights the persistence of cultural and academic bias. Most historians agree that racial segregation served the economic interests of the dominant society. At the same time, however, many Chicano/a parents and educational leaders were more interested in community control and school quality than in integration with Whites. Since historians of education have yet to concentrate on more recent immigration since the reforms of 1965, scholarship on Latino/a education has focused almost exclusively on Chicanos/as (Donato, 1997; Gonzalez, 1990; Salinas, 2000; San Miguel, 1987, 2001; Theobald & Donato, 1990; Valencia & San Miguel, Jr., 1988).

In contrast to scholarship on Native American and Latino/a secondary education, relatively little recent work has been completed on the history of Asian-American secondary education. Tamura (1994) and Morimoto (1997) have provided fine monographs detailing the tensions between acculturation and language maintenance among Japanese-American students in Hawaii and California. Both authors profile the struggle of Nisei students to preserve their cultural identity while joining the American middle class. These efforts were obstructed by Americanization activists who promoted total assimilation and limited educational opportunities for immigrants. James (1987) has also addressed the period of Japanese-American education within the concentration camps of the Second World War. Each of these works on secondary school experiences of Asian-Americans focus on Japanese-Americans. We know even less about the educational experiences of other early Asian immigrant populations, such as Filipino-Americans and Chinese-Americans. Given the rise of the term “non-Asian minorities,” it is especially important to compare and contrast Asian-American experiences with other ethnic minority populations in terms of educational issues such as biculturalism, community control, and integration.


Women were the first underrepresented population to gain access to college in substantial numbers, and this transition has been thoroughly documented by historians. With the exception of a few female seminaries, antebellum institutions of higher education generally did not provide equal educational opportunity for women students. During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, elite women’s colleges offering high quality academic training were founded across the nation. Many graduates of these institutions remained single and pursued careers in fields such as health and education.

Although a substantial number of private male colleges became coeducational in the late nineteenth century, these transitions were generally motivated by economic pressure or a desire to replace a fraction of weak male students. While most leaders in the women’s rights movement regarded coeducation as a crucial step on the road to social and economic equality, opposition to coeducation remained widespread. Many public intellectuals predicted that coeducation would blur essential boundaries between the sexes and weaken the moral and religious fabric of the nation. Some professors and administrators also worried about the “feminization” of subjects when women began to outnumber men in some courses. Others worried about impending “race suicide” due to the lower marriage rates of female college graduates.

While many public land grant institutions initially resisted coeducation, most normal schools and state universities in the north and west admitted women by the 1870s in response to sustained pressure by aspiring women scholars. Southern states were slower to become coeducational, and, following the example set by Mississippi, often opted to found public women’s colleges instead. Public and private colleges alike tended to differentiate their curricula and treat female students as second-class citizens well into the twentieth century. Despite this chilly reception, women students and scholars worked to broaden their access to academic departments at coeducational schools and to establish their own institutional space in programs such as Home Economics. This discipline, which remained linked to traditional gender roles yet provided new professional status for many female scholars, illustrated the complexity of women’s early access to higher education. Opposition to women’s professional and graduate training also remained widespread. Although many medical schools became coeducational in the late nineteenth century, female enrollment actually decreased as the doctors increasingly emphasized gendered definitions of professional expertise. A late nineteenth-century California court case outlawing discrimination against women in law school admissions marked the start of a trend towards equal access to professional education, and a significant increase in women’s participation in Ph.D. programs occurred during the 1920s and 1930s (Bordin, 1999; Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Gordon, 1990; Langdon, 2001; Lasser, 1987; Miller-Bernal, 1999; Nerad, 1999; Schwager, 1987; Solomon, 1985; Tyack & Hansot, 1992).

Beginning with the rush of predominantly male veterans onto college campuses after the Second World War, women’s proportional gains in higher education stalled. By the 1960s, though, women resumed their increase in access to all levels of advanced schooling. During the 1960s and 1970s, a second wave of college conversions to coeducation was motivated by a familiar mix of financial pressures and desires to raise admissions selectivity. In the decade of the 1960s alone, the number of women’s colleges decreased by half. Many former men’s colleges also went coed, though some retained female quotas. Between 1966 and 1986, the proportion of single-sex colleges decreased from twenty five to six percent of the total number of institutions of higher learning. By 1980, only two percent of women attending college were enrolled in single-sex schools. Although unevenly enforced, the 1972 Title IX amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned gender discrimination of any kind in schools receiving federal funding and has since been employed to attack inequality particularly in the realm of college athletics. Women’s college enrollment rapidly increased and surpassed male enrollment in 1979. By the 1980s, studies of young women revealed that their professional and educational aspirations equaled or surpassed those of young men. However, women remained underrepresented in professional schools in fields such as law and medicine (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Solomon, 1985; Tyack & Hansot, 1992).

Although the historiography of women’s access to college is incredibly rich, scholars of gender and higher education have tended to focus on the initial barriers to admission, curricular inequity and assets, and student culture. Relatively little historical work has analyzed the relationships between gender and socioeconomic status on college campuses. For example, Solomon (1985) briefly notes that more scholarship money was available for men than for women at the turn of the century. She also argues that the population of college women diversified in this same period Vandenberg-Daves (2001) has stated that working-class women began to attend college in the same proportions as affluent women sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s, and that their achievements challenged patriarchy as much as the better publicized women’s rights movement of this era. How might additional research into the intersection of gender and class complicate our understanding of college access and retention?


Although the broad timeline of the transition to college for working-class youth has been established, this area has not received sufficient attention in recent years. For the past fifteen years, historians of higher education have paid more attention to race and gender than to class (Nidiffer, 1999). Yet, class remains an important area for further research especially in light of proposals to reconsider the criteria for affirmative action.

 Burke (1982) and Allmendinger (1975) have demonstrated that the nineteenth-century college population was not entirely homogenous, while Herbst (1989) and Ogren (2005) have argued that normal schools were the first providers of mass higher education. Nevertheless, relatively few working-class or immigrant youth attended college during this era. While any student who could pass a series of entrance examinations could enroll in college, tuition and the scarcity of quality public secondary schooling were formidable hurdles throughout the century. In particular, college entrance exams in Latin and Greek excluded large numbers of students whose high schools did not offer adequate instruction in these subjects (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Jarausch, 1983; Leslie, 1992; Synnott, 1979; Wechsler, 1977).

Between the First and Second World Wars, rising rates of high school graduation and increasing employer interest in college credentials translated into a dramatic expansion of the number of college applicants. Most east coast colleges responded to this increase by raising their admissions requirements and becoming increasingly selective. Admissions officers began to consult standardize test scores and grade point averages in order to determine applicants’ eligibility. However, non-academic variables were also considered and often relied upon in order to reduce the numbers of Jewish and working-class students who were beginning to matriculate in large numbers. Many contemporary and subjective elements of the college admissions process originated in this period, such as interviews, letters of recommendations, and essay questions. On campus, ethnic and working-class students were often excluded from fraternities and other campus activities and tended to form their own extracurricular communities. By the 1930s, it was not uncommon for selective colleges to enforce specific quotas in order to limit the enrollment of Jewish students (Greenberg & Zenchelsky, 1993; Horowitz, 1987; Lemann, 1999; Markowitz, 1990; Oren, 1985; Synnott, 1979; Wechsler, 1977, 1984).

At this time, private Catholic colleges were important sites for the higher education of students who desired to maintain their culture or who were unable to attend other institutions. DePaul University, for example, enrolled large numbers of students from families of modest means (Rury, 1997). Yet, there has been little systematic research into the impact of Catholic institutions on underrepresented populations’ transition to college or social mobility. Gleason (1995), Leahy (1991), and Gallin (2000) have written the institutional, intellectual, and cultural histories of Catholic higher education. Yet, none of these authors primarily concentrate on student socioeconomic status. Since some scholars have suggested that parochial secondary schools might provide a model for effective urban education, the dearth of research on the egalitarian aspects of Catholic higher education is somewhat surprising.

Historians have also paid insufficient attention to how institutions of public higher education responded to the increasing demand for college during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most studies repeat the conventional wisdom that public and land grant universities, especially in the Midwest and West, offered vocationally-oriented curricula to a somewhat broader range of students. In contrast, private universities focused on providing liberal arts education to small numbers of elite students and valued their independence from external social and economic forces. Yet, by the 1920s, some state flagship universities such as Michigan and Minnesota debated whether they should imitate selective private schools or continue to focus on the education of the largest possible number of high school graduates. Dennis (2001) suggests that administrators of southern public universities tempered their interest in selective admissions in order serve a broader segment of state residents. In contrast, Levine (1986) argues that state universities generally emulated private schools, charged increasingly high fees, and did not educate significantly numbers of students from previously underrepresented populations. While the University of California pledged to expand access to higher education beyond the privileged classes, poor students were never proportionately represented at the state’s flagship campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles. In the case of Massachusetts, Freeland (1992) agrees that the state’s Amherst campus contributed little to the cause of educational opportunity (Douglass, 2000; Jewell, 2000; Wechsler, 1977).

While private colleges were free to limit their enrollments, public systems of higher education could be pressured to accommodate larger numbers of students. Skeptical of the ability and the commitment of the majority of high school graduates, most state administrators responded to higher demands for higher education by sorting students into a variety of educational settings, ranging from two-year community colleges to four-year state colleges and universities. Most states devoted substantial resources to flagship campuses while the majority of students from previously underrepresented working-class populations enrolled in two-year or regional colleges. While most states lacked the level of coordination embodied by California’s 1960 “Master Plan,” most regional state colleges, which generally evolved out of public normal schools, encountered administrative or legislative opposition whenever they sought to duplicate academic programs offered by flagship universities. When public and private schools occupied the same locale, similar sorts of stratification has occurred. In New York City, for example, Columbia University staked out a position at the top of the region’s higher education hierarchy and relied upon nearby public colleges to ease political pressure by accommodating the large numbers of aspiring students which Columbia excluded. While schools such as City College and New York University could provide high quality education, their graduates had less access to power and prestige (Bender, 1987; Glazer, 1988; Jarausch, 1983; Levine, 1986; Link, 1995; Wechsler, 1977).

Scholars specializing in two-year community colleges have made important contributions to this analysis of institutional stratification. Established in the early twentieth century, these colleges were charged with a dual mission: to provide vocational training for high school graduates who were uninterested or unable to earn a bachelor’s degree, and supply the general education necessary to enable students to transfer to four-year colleges. Brint and Karabel (1989) argue that community colleges have tended to gravitate from liberal arts to vocational courses, thereby decreasing students’ opportunities to complete their bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges. Similarly, Frye (1992) argues that the national proponents of two-year colleges promoted occupational training while most students and local boosters were more interested in liberal arts curricula. Dougherty (2001) stakes out a middle ground between the proponents and critics of community colleges. He asserts that community colleges increased access to education, but ultimately reduced enrollments in four-year colleges. Dougherty also argues that the efficacy of two-year vocational programs has been more complicated than its critics and champions have been willing to acknowledge. Especially since community colleges have accounted for nearly half of all enrollments in institutions of higher education since the Second World War, additional research is required to better test generalizations about the extent to which they have satisfied the aspirations of their students. Further studies of this question might also help to clarify the extent to which the concentration of working-class students in two-year colleges was a product of public policy, financial constraints, or student choice.

Following the Second World War, the scale and speed of the increase in college enrollment was unprecedented. Initially, most scholars believed that the G. I. Bill dramatically helped to redefine the collegiate population by introducing large proportions of working-class students. Olson (1974), however, notes that the soldiers who were most likely to benefit from the G. I. Bill were veterans who already had financial resources. Olson estimates that the majority of recipients could have paid their college tuition without the government's assistance before the war. Although it seems certain that the G. I. Bill was instrumental in enlarging administrators’ and policy-makers’ sense of the college-going percentage of the population, it is less clear whether the late 1940s were a watershed in terms of working-class access to college (Bennett, 1996; Clark, 1998). Scholars do agree that anti-Semitism in higher education subsided after the Second World War as result of the reaction against Nazism, the contributions of Jewish veterans and refugees, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Oren, 1985; Synnott, 1979).

At the highest levels of administration, a crucial reexamination of higher education had occurred by the late 1940s. Debates over who should go to college and why had been intensifying since the First World War. A cohort of university presidents, including Lotus Coffman of Minnesota and George Zook of Akron, lobbied for the development of institutions of mass higher education that might balance utilitarian curricula and traditional forms of liberal arts. These administrators believed that colleges could introduce a broad swath of American youth to the virtues of what Coffman called “intelligent followership.” Other prominent figures in higher education, such as Robert Hutchins, continued to argue that college education should remain selective and focused on pure academic pursuits. Eventually, the Truman administration endorsed the concept of mass higher education. Chaired by Zook, a Presidential Commission on Higher Education recommended that forty-nine percent of 18–21 year olds could benefit from some form of college. Since less than sixteen percent of this age group attended college in 1940, this report endorsed not only an expansive definition of higher education, but also an emerging confidence in the intellectual capabilities of the American population (Levine, 1986). Freeland (1992) attributes this radical shift to the growth of bureaucracy and technology in the workplace combined with the emergence of democratic ideology in the wartime and postwar period.

By the 1960s, a period of economic growth and civil rights activism, the notion of “universal” higher education regardless of social class was first promulgated as a national goal. College enrollment more than doubled during the 1960s, reaching a total of 7.9 million students. The value of a college credential in the bureaucracies of both the public and private sectors helped per-capita enrollment rise to a new peak in 1975. While financial need continued to prevent many working-class high school graduates from attending college, overtly discriminatory admissions policies decreased. However, an increasing prestige gap between schools during this period of expanding enrollments may have exacerbated existing gulfs between haves and have-nots. Freeland (1992) argues that a postwar “golden age” of government funding may have increased the stratification of higher education by dramatically increasing the resources of elite universities. In addition, leaders of American higher education may have prioritized competition for institutional prestige over attention to access. On the other side of the prestige spectrum, enrollments in community colleges and public colleges have expanded rapidly in the past fifty years. Whereas enrollments in public and private institutions were nearly equivalent in 1950, the public sector of higher education enrolled three-quarters of all students by 1970 (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Grobman, 1988).

As the baby boom ebbed, colleges vied with each other to fill seats during the 1970s and 1980s. Competition with neighboring institutions encouraged elite colleges to bolster their images by reducing their class sizes and increasing their selectivity. In this atmosphere, colleges’ average SAT scores became a public indication of college rank and helped to illustrate the growth of a substantial gap between selective and non-selective colleges (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Freeland, 1992). Some historians have argued that this dramatic stratification among institutions of higher education has betrayed the promise of democratic education throughout the twentieth century. While enrollments in colleges and universities expanded, increasing inter- and intra-institutional stratification may have preserved the status of students in prestigious programs and denied equal opportunity to working-class students who were most likely to enroll in less selective schools. While most historians who have written about college access have been critical of this trend towards greater institutional stratification, some scholars have come to its defense. Kabaservice (2001) and Douglass (2000), for example, argue that scientific research and academic quality at elite schools depend on selective admissions and high levels of state funding. While noting that Minnesotans protested against a proposal to limit access to the state’s Twin Cities campus in the 1980s, Vandenberg-Daves (2003) has argued that rural residents were more interested in founding local public colleges from the 1950s through the 1970s. Further research is needed to sharpen our understanding of the social costs and benefits of institutional stratification. For example, to what extent were low-status institutions such as normal schools, agricultural schools, and community colleges effective means of expanding educational opportunity? To what extent did this institutional differentiation obstruct or otherwise mediate the increase in access to higher education for working-class students?


Similarly, historians are still in the process of exploring the implications of racial segregation in higher education. In the antebellum era, a small number of African-Americans graduated from northern and mid-western institutions of higher education. Although most antebellum colleges and universities did not maintain formal racial barriers, limited secondary schooling and financial constraints functioned as de facto restrictions on the number of Black applicants (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Jewell, 2000; Waite, 2002). Between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, few Black students graduated from predominantly White colleges and institutions. Perkins concludes that the handful of affluent Black women at the Seven Sister Colleges encountered a relatively tolerant environment and proceeded to successful professional careers. For the most part, however, segregated colleges founded during Reconstruction were the only opportunity for African-Americans to pursue higher education during this period. Most of these historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were founded by White missionaries or philanthropists and generally came under Black leadership during the first half of twentieth century (Anderson, 1988; Drewry & Doermann, 2001; Levine, 1986; Lucas, 1994; Perkins, 1997).

Although Black college enrollment increased steadily, only one percent of Black Americans had gone to college by 1940 compared to five percent of White Americans. The Second World War provided some increase in access to higher education as Black soldiers took advantage of educational opportunities provided by the military. However, many Black veterans did not have enough academic preparation to qualify for the scholarships provided by the G. I. Bill. In addition, thousands of Black veterans who possessed high school diplomas were still unable to find a space at overflowing HBCUs. Furthermore, Black veterans who graduated from segregated institutions of higher education enjoyed relatively modest economic benefit from their degrees (Cohen, 2003; Fass, 1989; Levine, 1986; Turner & Bound, 2003).

Debate over the academic quality of HBCUs has been as extensive as disagreements over the quality of segregated secondary schools. Many historians have described the small budgets of most HBCUs and celebrated the movements to integrate White flagship universities in southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi (Levine, 1986; Pratt, 2002; Sansig, 1990). Scholars have also noted that the White philanthropists who supported the founding of Black colleges typically promoted vocational training instead of programs in the liberal arts. Yet, Wolters (1975) and Anderson (1988) argue that Black college students rebelled against this paternalism and worked to increase offerings in traditional academic and professional subjects. Even more enthusiastic, Drewry and Doermann (2001) conclude that private HBCUs promoted the growth of the African-American middle class. They also note that only half of the private HBCUs established between 1900 and 1915 were primarily focused on agricultural or vocational subjects. While Drewry and Doermann acknowledge that HBCUs had less money, fewer credentialed faculty, and lower standardized test scores, they argue that these schools served as invaluable sources of cultural pride and excelled at providing higher education to students with weak secondary schooling. They also assert that HBCUs successfully trained several generations of Black professional leaders and cultivated a lifelong commitment to community service amongst graduates. In contrast to the standard narrative of integration, some Black leaders, such as Kentucky State’s Rufus King, sought increased funding for HBCUs as alternative to integration (Smith, 1994). Shabazz (2004) illustrates a similar conflict in Texas and highlights the persistence of racism in predominantly White colleges and universities (PWCUs) after integration.

African-American college enrollments grew substantially beginning in the mid-1950s, and by the 1970s, half of Black college students were attending PWCUs. Although a few predominantly White colleges voluntarily desegregated, outside pressure was generally required in order to expand access to African-American students. Most segregated public systems of higher education sought to resist federal authority through policies of passive resistance. It seems clear that consistent pressure from the national government was necessary to compel the gradual desegregation of state universities. Even though there were small gains during the late 1950s and early 1960s, significant increases in African-American access to higher education did not occur until after the implementation and enforcement of civil rights legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) (Cross & Slater, 1999;Synnott, 1989). Rebutting recent doubts about the government’s ability to promote integration, Williams (1997) attributes the persistence of low Black enrollment to the weak and inconsistent enforcement of these laws. Williams notes that there were no specific federal guidelines for the desegregation of higher education until 1977. Federal officials also tended to evaluate state processes, rather than discrete outcomes or timetables for increasing Black enrollments. In Georgia, for example, state resistance and litigation delayed the implementation of substantial desegregation measures until 1982. Instead of adopting structural changes such as merging academic departments of neighboring segregated colleges or increasing funding for retention programs, Georgia managed to appease federal authorities by initiating relatively superficial recruitment programs.

Beginning in the early 1960s, many northern and western colleges initiated their own programs designed to increase access to African-Americans. Summer enrichment, upward bound, and scholarships achieved only modest success at elite liberal arts colleges. By 1968, despite relative gains in enrollment, Black students still represented a disproportionately small percentage of the student body at most PWCUs. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many colleges took additional steps to overcome the financial and academic obstacles to integration. Colleges expanded their admissions criteria, increased financial aid, made recruiting trips to predominantly Black high schools, and instituted remedial education programs (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Higginbotham, 2001). Several schools experimented with more radical policies. Rutgers accepted applicants who scored over 400 on the SAT verbal and ranked in the top half of their high school class. Rutgers also instituted the Urban University Program, a non-credit remedial school designed to serve as a bridge to regular undergraduate status. This program, however, struggled to achieve its goals and was eventually scaled back and subsumed by a less ambitious equal-opportunity program (McCormick, 1990). The City University of New York (CUNY) made the most dramatic efforts to increase minority enrollments. CUNY experimented with programs to enroll disadvantaged high school graduates and adopted a policy of open admissions in 1970. Although CUNY’s open admissions era has attracted much attention from historians, they remain divided over the efficacy of this policy. Traub (1994) notes CUNY’s dropping graduation rates and academic performance, although he is more cautiously enthusiastic about ESL programs and pockets of high-level academic achievement in engineering and the liberal arts.

According to Reuben (2001), these programs for increasing the enrollments of African-American students were always vulnerable to criticism. Instead of redefining their definitions of student merit or rearticulating the social mission of higher education, university and college administrators had justified minority recruitment in the traditional terms of a national search for talented youth. These recruitment programs were always susceptible to charges of reverse-discrimination because administrators never reconciled their stated goals of locating talented students of color with their policies of altering academic requirements. Increasing attention to standardized tests, proposals for open admissions, and the need for academic remediation put most recruitment programs on the defensive. Administrators might have avoided these conflicts either by redefining student merit in a more inclusive fashion or by acknowledging and seeking to reform blatant inequalities in secondary and elementary education.3

The patchwork of policies designed to increase access to higher education was very effective for a small number of academically successful and predominantly middle class African-American students. However, access to high-status institutions of higher education remained out of reach for a large proportion of Black students. Increasing selectivity at the top tier of colleges and universities has worked at cross purposes with the goal of achieving equal access to higher education. In addition, increasing reliance on standardized testing may have widened the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged African-Americans. After 1975, political momentum ebbed and Black enrollment in colleges and universities actually declined despite the fact that high school graduation rates remained constant. Disproportionate numbers of African-American students continued to enroll in unselective institutions. Backlash against earlier policies pressured higher-status colleges and universities to limit their recruitment of students of color to a limited pool of high-scoring candidates. By the 1990s, the most radical policies, such as those implemented at CUNY and the University of California, were scaled back or rejected altogether (Baker, 2001; Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Jewell, 2000; Karen, 1991; Reuben, 2001).


While the history of Native American boarding schools has been well documented, Native American access to higher education still awaits thorough historical treatment. After unsuccessful experiments at Harvard College and Henrico College in the seventeenth century, a small number of Native Americans gained access to college during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some attended HBCUs such as the Hampton Institute, while others attended PWCUs. Most White reformers and policy-makers in the nineteenth century opposed the formation of separate tribal colleges because they believed that all Indians should assimilate into White culture.4 As late as the early 1930s, only a few hundred Native American students attended college. The 1960s and 1970s, however, were decades of substantial growth for Native American higher education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 provided federal funding to colleges sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Many BIA boarding schools were converted into junior colleges, shifting the BIA’s emphasis from secondary vocational training to post-secondary vocational training. In 1968, the Navajo Community College (later renamed Diné College) became the first college founded and controlled entirely by tribal authorities. Inspired by schools such as Diné, the Indian Education Act of 1972 authorized federal funding for Native American community colleges and facilitated the spread of these autonomous institutions of higher education. Private foundations also began to make substantial contributions. Still, tribal colleges have generally not provided four years of higher education. In 1997, 27 out of 30 American tribal colleges were two-year programs with emphases on cultural preservation and vocational preparation. Native American college attendance has grown consistently since the 1970s and represented almost one percent of total student enrollment by the mid-1990s (Szasz, 1974, 1999; Wollock, 1997).

Research on early Latino/a and Asian-American enrollment in college has been hampered by the fact that most institutions did not keep data on students representing these underrepresented populations prior to the 1980s. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Latinos/as benefited from federal policies such as the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the Educational Opportunities Program. During the 1980s, despite persistent discrimination in the arena of secondary schooling, Latino/a enrollment in colleges and universities doubled (Bernal, 1999, MacDonald & García, 2003). Between the conclusion of the Spanish-American War and the 1930s, small numbers of Filipino students sought professional credentials from American colleges. Although most of these students intended to return to the Philippines after graduation, many were unable to work their way through college and formed a permanent Filipino-American community. During the Second World War, thousands of Nisei students left the concentration camps and attended college. In the 1960s and 1970s, Asian-American students gained visibility in institutions of higher education by joining protests for civil rights, ethnic studies, and admissions reform. Although Asian-American academic achievement has been subjected to a great deal of stereotyping, Asian-Americans have become well represented at many elite American colleges and universities. By 1984, for example, the University of California no longer considered Asian-Americans to be an underrepresented population. Activists have suspected that some schools initiated unofficial quotas in order to limit Asian-American enrollment. Despite the relative success of Asian-American students as a whole, certain ethnic communities remain underrepresented in higher education (Lemann, 1999; Okihiro, 1999; Posadas & Guyotte, 1990).


Although colleges have granted scholarships, especially for students training for Protestant ministries, since the earliest era of American higher education, formal financial aid programs did not proliferate until the end of the nineteenth century. However, many public universities charged little or no tuition. Still, subsistence expenses and opportunity costs remained serious barriers to college for students with modest means. Private colleges and universities began to offer merit scholarships in order to attract academically gifted students who had limited means or who hailed from faraway regions. By the Second World War, institutions also offered need-based aid, motivated in part by concerns that admissions solely based on academic merit would erode schools’ extracurricular vitality. By the 1960s, the College Board helped to reduce competition between schools by standardizing the formula used to calculate student need.  

During the 1930s, the federal government began providing financial aid for the first time. The National Youth Administration provided grants and work study opportunities to students across the country (Bower, 2004). In addition, the Indian Reorganization Act included a loan program that served 1,900 Native American students between 1935 and 1944. In 1948, after it had become clear that debt-burdened recipients were dropping out in relatively high proportions, these loans evolved into cash grants (Szasz, 1974, 1999; Wollock, 1997). The G. I. Bill provided financial aid for higher education on an unprecedented scale in the years following the Second World War, while the National Defense and Education Act of 1958 offered loans to gifted students interested in studying science or foreign languages. The Higher Education Act of 1965 provided the first federal source of need-based funding. A component of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, this act authorized tuition grants, low-interest loans, and federal work-study opportunities.

Despite this new source of government assistance, most institutions could not afford to provide sufficient financial aid for all qualified applicants. Since it had become socially unpalatable to reject a portion of applicants solely because of their financial status, many schools adopted “admit/deny” policies which admitted qualified students regardless of need, but denied financial aid to students whose grades, scores, and applications fell below certain cutoff points. Need-based federal financial aid was eventually boosted by the Pell Grant provision of the Higher Education Act of 1972. Nevertheless, the available aid was still not sufficient to equalize access to higher education. The proportions of poor high school graduates attending college remained significantly lower than the enrollment rates of wealthy high school graduates. Since 1961, college enrollment rates for low-income students with high academic achievement have remained close to sixty percent. Family income levels have also continued to correlate to the type of institution that students attend (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; McPherson & Schapiro, 2001; Wilkerson, 2001; Wollock, 1997).

The early 1970s were the peak era of per-capita financial aid targeted to students from previously underrepresented populations. During this period, politicians began to express concern about a “middle income squeeze” of college financing. As a result, the federal government recalibrated Pell grants in order to provide more funding for middle-class students and for private college tuition. Individual schools and the College Board also relaxed their financial aid formulas. As a result, a larger proportion of funding began to flow towards populations who were already well represented in institutions of higher education. Rising costs during the 1980s and 1990s also served to decrease the proportions of tuition typically covered by federal and state aid. Federal financial aid appropriations decreased during the 1980s and student loans became larger components of financial aid packages as colleges were generally unable to pick up the slack. As a result, working-class youth have become less likely to attend prestigious institutions over the course of the past few decades. Working-class African-Americans may have suffered from the decline in student aid more than working-class Whites. One study concluded that college enrollment of low-income Black students fell twenty-nine percent between 1979 and 1984, while enrollments of low-income White students remained constant. In general, working-class students have been unable to organize as a distinct interest group in order to pressure politicians and university administrators to reverse these trends (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; Harcleroad & Ostar, 1987; Karen, 1991; McPherson & Schapiro, 2001; Wilkerson, 2001).

The rise of merit-based financial aid constitutes another significant historical trend. As schools competed for high-achieving students during a post-baby boom slump in college-aged youth, merit-based aid began to rival need-based aid as the main form of financial assistance. Awarded disproportionately to affluent students, merit aid packages do not appear to have been an effective means of increasing the enrollment of students from underrepresented populations. Once on the cutting edge of egalitarian reforms of access to higher education, admissions committees evolved into offices of “enrollment management” that balanced competing demands for diversity, tuition, and institutional prestige. In this climate, financial aid was more likely to be regarded as a tool to build a desirable freshman class instead of as a mechanism for achieving social justice. The extent to which increases in merit-based aid may or may not have impacted the availability of need-based aid or the enrollment of students from underrepresented populations is not yet clear (Duffy & Goldberg, 1998; McPherson & Schapiro, 2001; Wilkerson, 2001). Duffy and Goldberg (1998) have suggested, for instance, that the relationship between merit-based and need-based aid was not necessarily zero-sum. They also speculate that merit-aid may have been necessary for ensuring academic quality and institutional survival in a competitive marketplace.

Perhaps because the quantitative nature of financial aid seems to mesh more directly with other social science disciplines such as economics, there has been a lack of historical research on this topic. Nevertheless, historians can deepen their examination of the political debates and discussions of college mission which informed financial aid policy. Historians can also evaluate the relationship between the intentions of financial aid and outcomes as measured by other social scientists. Historians can explain the shifting emphases on need-based aid, merit-based aid, and student loans. Has there indeed been a zero-sum game between the various forms of aid? What were the perceived and actual relationships between financial aid, college competitiveness, and academic quality? What was the relationship between public policy and institutional policy?


Higher education generally paid dividends for women graduates. Although their job options were limited and they were typically underpaid for their work, women college graduates became more likely to obtain financial independence. Women with college degrees have always been more likely to work and to remain employed even after marriage or childbirth. At first, the majority of female college graduates became teachers or social workers. During the twentieth century, however, the occupational outcomes of female graduates began to more closely mirror those of male graduates. Perkins has argued that Black women in college during the nineteenth century tended to view higher education as a strategy for "race uplift." In contrast, White women were more likely to approach higher education in order to elevate their traditional domestic roles or to train for a specific vocation. While most Black female graduates could find work as schoolteachers, Black male graduates were more likely to have difficulty finding jobs that required college degrees (Noble, 1988; Perkins, 1983, 1990, 1997; Sicherman, 1988; Vandenberg-Daves, 2001).

Black students attending predominantly White colleges have generally encountered either veiled or overt forms of hostility. Many of these students have reported feelings of social isolation and expressed ambivalence about the value of their sacrifices. While small colleges achieved social integration more quickly, the first Black students at large predominantly White universities tended to remain separate from many extracurricular and social activities. Those students who entered college with unequal academic preparation also found little or no compensatory tutoring programs. This pioneering cohort of students arrived on campus with high expectations and was generally surprised by the lack of respect for their cultural backgrounds. In response to this environment and in concert with a broader movement for Black power, this generation of students worked to create a more welcoming atmosphere on campus. Black fraternities, initially founded in HBCUs, spread to most major research universities and provided valuable support networks. This generation of Black college students advocated for the establishment of Black student unions, cultural centers, Black studies programs, and academic support services. On many campuses, Black student activists made radical demands for more active recruitment and hiring of Black professors, reforms of admissions policies for students of color, and substantial increases in financial aid (Exum, 1985; Higginbotham, 2001; McCormick, 1990; Morris, 1995; Ross Jr., 2000; Williamson, 1999, 2005).

These protest movements forced colleges and universities to weigh their interest in preserving their elite status against their interest in providing equal opportunity. Some of these reforms were achieved, Black enrollments increased, and predominantly White campuses became somewhat more hospitable to Black students. Nevertheless, race relations on campus were still strained and the retention rate for Black college students remained significantly lower than that of Whites. For example, the 1979 graduation rate of students participating in the predominantly-Black Rutgers Equal Opportunity Fund was twenty-seven percent, less than half of the overall Rutgers graduation rate (McCormick, 1990). Drewry and Doermann (2001) suggest that the track records of historically Black colleges compare favorably to predominantly White colleges. They note that, since the 1970s, graduates of HBCUs have been more likely to earn advanced degrees than Black graduates from PWCUs. Despite the persistence of a gap in college retention rates between Black and White students, many scholars argue that this generation of Black college students worked to redefine the meaning of collegiate success. Similar to Perkins’ (1983, 1990) discussion of elite nineteenth-century African-American women, they suggest that Black students at PWCUs during the 1960s and 1970s measured success in terms of social and racial justice rather than in purely academic and professional terms.

Compared to the body of historical scholarship addressing the experiences of Black students on predominantly White campuses, very little has been written about other minority groups or White working-class students. The work of social scientists has found that the unselective institutions that enroll disproportionate numbers of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have tended to have lower graduation rates in the past few decades (Monkturner, 1995). Yet, historians have not yet explored the extent to which this dynamic also explains earlier patterns of college retention. Historians also do not seem to have been particularly effective at supporting their analysis of college outcomes with available quantitative studies of the economic returns to college. To what extent have lower-status colleges and universities provided quality academic instruction? While historians have debated whether credentials or academics were the driving force behind the expansion of secondary education, no such debate has taken place with regards to higher education. Historians should begin to compare the post-graduation outcomes of students from low- and high-status colleges and universities.  


Given the state of historical research on higher education, scholars should be cautious about drawing definite conclusions about how to best to expand contemporary access to college. This essay has indicated several key areas in which additional research would be required before historians of higher education could be confident about their contributions to public policy. In particular, historians still do not have a sufficient understanding of the extent to which institutional differentiation and stratification has promoted or prevented equal access to higher education. In other areas, however, it is possible to describe some tentative recommendations based on what we know of the past. In terms of preparation, the experience of 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. While consensus has not been reached about the merits of the most ambitious remedial programs, college resources may have to play a significant role in bridging current gaps between high schools and post-secondary education.

Along with inequalities in preparation, the evolving concept of meritocratic admissions has been another historical barrier to equal access to higher education. 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. Standardized test scores have long since ceased to be a means of increasing access to college. Since colleges have struggled to articulate a consistent measurement of student merit, it remains unclear if it is possible to determine a coherent or constructive college mission based on meritocratic principles. History suggests that admissions committees can and should continue to explore ways to reform and expand their definitions of merit. For example, although student test scores were originally conceived as a means of measuring the likelihood of a student’s academic success in college, administrators should recognize that scores have been increasingly viewed in aggregate as measurements of institutional quality and prestige.   

While the history of financial barriers to college is still somewhat speculative, it is clear that the introduction of need-based aid in the 1960s and 1970s correlated with a dramatic spike in enrollment. However, historians are not certain if this policy was a more important variable than civil rights activism, economic growth, or the cultural impact of the G. I. Bill.

Although the deregulated U.S. system of higher education has been favorably compared to colleges and universities in other industrialized nations, history suggests that equal access may require state action. On occasion, market forces have motivated institutions to expand access to underrepresented populations. The move towards coeducation, in particular, benefited from institutional interest in expanding their pool of potential applicants. However, government intervention has generally been necessary to increase access to college. In addition to specific acts of legislation, such as the Higher Education Act of 1965, state sponsorship of public colleges and universities has been crucial. The public sector of higher education has accommodated the majority of students from underrepresented populations. While skeptics have often questioned the need for additional capacity, history can teach us that experts have routinely underestimated the extent of the demand for higher education by students and employers alike. This simple lesson may be history’s most powerful contribution to current conversations about college access.

This manuscript was prepared as part of the Social Science Research Council’s Transition to College project.  I would especially like to thank Julie Reuben for her guidance throughout the process of researching and writing this paper.  


1 This essay does not provide an exhaustive survey of all historical scholarship on transitions to college.  The “Preparation” section, in particular, only discusses work representing broad themes and major debates in the historiography as well as scholarship which touches most directly access to college.

2 It is also important to consider whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students should be considered underrepresented populations during the eras in which these identities were generally suppressed on college campuses.  Aside from D’Emilio’s preliminary essays about the college experiences of GLBT students, very little historical work has been conducted on this subject (D'Emilio, 1992).

3 Widespread embrace of meritocratic ideals also complicated efforts to increase class heterogeneity in colleges and universities.  According to Jencks and Riesman (1969), reliance on standardized tests actually rendered institutions of higher education more stratified by class during the 1960s than during the 1930s and 1940s.

4 The Croatan Normal School in Robeson County, North Carolina is an important exception.  Established by act of the North Carolina legislature in 1887 in response to a petition by Lumbee Indians, this school was arguably the first American institution of higher education subject to a substantial degree of Native American governance.  This school has evolved into the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A boarding school founded by Baptist missionaries in the Indian Territories (OK) also evolved into Bacone College by the 1920s (Reyhner & Eder, 2004).


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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: 1/27/2022 10:04:34 PM

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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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