The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System

reviewed by John H. Schuh - April 16, 2008

coverTitle: The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System
Author(s): Arthur M. Cohen
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787998265, Pages: 495, Year: 2007
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Professor Arthur Cohen’s history of higher education in the United States was released in hard cover in 1997 and subsequently has been published in paperback format. This history provides a comprehensive examination and analysis of the history of higher education in the US and differs substantially from other relatively recently published histories of higher education, including those of Lucas (1994) and Thelin (2004). Professor Cohen asserts, “The book is useful as an overview for practitioners in all areas of higher education who can benefit from knowledge of broad currents affecting their work” (p. ix). In that respect Professor Cohen is successful.

This volume uses a different historical and organizational taxonomy than those used in other treatments of US higher education. Professor Cohen identifies five historical periods for his analysis: 1636-1789, 1790-1869, 1870-1944, 1945-1975, and 1976-1998. This approach differs from Roger Geiger’s ten generations of American Higher Education (1999) or the eight time periods that John Thelin uses to organize his treatment of the history of US higher education (2004). My personal preference leans toward using more time periods but Professor Cohen acknowledges that his book is “…less a history than a synthesis” (p. 6), and consequently the approach he takes toward dividing the chronology of US higher education works nicely.  

The organization of each chapter makes it easy for the reader to make comparisons across historical periods. Professor Cohen begins each chapter by providing the societal context for the time period under discussion. Then, he provides an analysis of institutions, students, faculty, curriculum and instruction, governance and administration, finance, and outcomes. This method of organization makes it very easy for the reader to compare and contrast the topic across the years. For example, one could focus on students in the colonial period (1636-1789), the emergent nation period (1790-1869), the University transformation period (1870-1944) and so on.  In that respect, this volume is particularly valuable, since it could be used to provide a historical foundation for a topic, such as higher education finance, before delving into a research project on a contemporary issue related to the topic.

Professor Cohen’s work makes other important contributions. One is his use of statistical tables at the beginning of each of his five historical eras. The tables include data about the population of the US (or the colonies in the case of the first era), and the number of students, faculty, institutions, and degrees conferred. Current fund revenue is added to the tables for the two most recent time periods. Each table illustrates the dramatic growth of higher education in the US. For example, the US had 250 institutions of higher education in 1870, but this number had grown to 1,768 in 1945 (p. 98). I have found using these tables in my higher education history course to be particularly powerful since they provide dramatic evidence of the growth of higher education in the US for class discussions. Professor Cohen has provided a number of other useful tables in the book, such as information about the colonial colleges, admission requirements for selected degree programs in 1897, and a comparison of voluntary support for higher education in 1949-50 and 1975-76.  

In a couple of instances I wished that Professor Cohen had cited references when he made certain assertions or provided detailed statistics. His discussion of public institutions surpassing private institutions in enrollment is an example. His volume claims that the two institutional types drew about even in terms of enrollments in the 1930s (p. 187); here I thought a citation might be useful. My understanding had been that parity in public and private enrollments was reached in the early 1950s (Snyder, Dillow & Hoffman, 2008) and without a reference it is exceedingly hard to check the data. Similarly, he asserts that institutions spend all the money they can to improve what they do, because of their desire for educational excellence and prestige (pp. 253-254). I had always attributed this line of thinking to Howard Bowen (1980/1996), and while Professor Cohen does list Dr. Bowen’s classic work in his references, I would have found it useful to know if the idea originated with Professor Cohen or Dr. Bowen even though the concept is used commonly in higher education.

Professor Cohen employs language beautifully in this volume. His description of higher education’s ignoring criticism similar to supertankers traveling at high rates of speed shrugging off waves was a superb use of the language. He also touched on the ironic by referring to foundations supporting higher education in the mass higher education era as “eleemosynary” (p. 267). “Eleemosynary” is how the Supreme Court decision referred to the Dartmouth corporation in the famous Dartmouth v. Woodard (Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodard, 1819).

One assertion of Professor Cohen needs to be addressed.  He claims that public institutions cannot run a surplus in the context of state appropriations (pp. 390-391). While this is true for some public institutions, it is not true for all. In my work as a consultant evaluator in the course of accreditation visits, I have visited some state-assisted institutions that have been allowed to carry state appropriations forward from one fiscal year to the next.  While it is clear that from a political point of view it is probably not a wise practice to carry a great deal of money forward from one fiscal year to the next, relief has been provided in some states that allows institutions to carry their state appropriations forward.

While he certainly does acknowledge the foundation and organization of colleges and universities dedicated to the education of women and African Americans, I wish that Professor Cohen would have devoted his considerable talents to providing more analysis about the development of these institutions. They have played a significant role in widening opportunities for students who had not been welcome at most institutions of higher education, and a more detailed analysis would have been useful in my judgment.  

So which of these volumes should one read? In some respects, that depends on one’s taste in studying history. Christopher Lucas’s volume is pointed. That is, Professor Lucas is not afraid to share his point of view, particularly in his final chapter. Professor Thelin is a raconteur. His book contains many wonderful stories that are used to illustrate his assertions. Whether it is the description of John Cook Bennett’s selling degrees in the 1820s, or the reference to Ozzie Nelson as a football teammate of Paul Robeson, his volume captures and holds the attention of his readers through the stories he tells. Professor Cohen is a perceptive analyst, and consequently, his volume has tremendous value. For the reasons articulated in this review, his book provides a thoughtful, detailed analysis of the history of US higher education, and in that respect makes a significant contribution to the literature.


Bowen, H.R.  (1980/1996).  What determines the cost of higher education? In D.W. Breneman, L.L. Leslie, & R.E. Anderson (Eds.), ASHE reader on finance in higher education (pp. 113-127). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

Geiger, R.  The ten generations of American higher education. In P.G. Altbach, R.O. Berdahl, & P.J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century (pp. 38-69). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lucas, C.J. (1994). American higher education. A history. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.  

Snyder, T.D., Dillow, S.A.,  & Hoffman, C.M. (2008). Digest of education statistics 2007.  NCES 2008-022). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.  

Thelin, J.R. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodard, 17 U.S. 518 (1819) 17 U.S. 518 (Wheat.)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 16, 2008 ID Number: 15214, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 8:59:20 AM

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