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Five Important Changes in Higher Education from the Past 500 Years

Five Important Changes in Higher Education from the Past 500 Years
Over the past 500 years, most of the changes in higher education have been geared toward increasing access, ensuring program relevance and improving campus life.

Higher education in the United States reminds me of a chameleon that can change its characteristics in the blink of an eye, depending on the setting. In particular, we want our colleges to be both conservative and innovative. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in our penchant for historic revival styles of campus architecture.

Medieval towers and Georgian brick facades combine historic exteriors with the most cutting-edge research centers and laboratories. Here’s my take on five of the most significant changes in higher education since the 13th century.

1. Charters and Degrees

When a host government granted universities at Bologna, Italy, Paris and Oxford, England, formal charters, this meant that higher learning had the requisite protections and responsibilities that would allow it to endure without harassment or arbitrary actions. And, central to this formal status was the power to grant academic degrees — a good sign that education was significant, formalized and serious.

2. Access and Choice

Changes to admissions requirements combined with the addition of student financial aid programs has gradually extended access to higher education, with at least some attempt to decrease exclusion on the basis of such non-merit factors as gender, religion, race, ethnicity and modest income. Affordability has been promoted by such initiatives as scholarship funds from private foundations, the 1862 Morrill Act and the numerous federal programs, such as Pell Grants, as part of the 1972 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. I think the 1972 Title IX legislation, which formalized equal opportunity in higher education, increased national awareness of some barriers to participation in a range of educational programs.

3. Elevators and Parking Lots

It’s fortunate that the expansion of higher education enrollments since about 1910 has been accompanied by some technological changes, including elevators in classroom buildings. How else could you reach your class on the 34rd floor of the academic tower? And, since we are a nation dependent on cars, think of how different our campuses would be — both for better and worse — if there were no parking lots for them?

4. Intercollegiate Athletics

The innovation and spread of college sports has been one of the most defining and controversial features of colleges and universities in the United States since the late 19th century. This sounds silly and superficial, until you host a group of visiting students and faculty from outside the United States and take them to a football game played by students before a crowd of 70,000 spectators. But it is a problematic development, as most colleges and universities have yet to reconcile college sports with their genuine educational mission.

5. Boards of Trustees

Starting with the colonial era of the 17th century, American colleges and universities were distinctive (perhaps unique) worldwide in their arrangement to vest ultimate power in external boards in concert with a strong president — rather than with, for example, some internal group such as the faculty or the students. It’s a governance structure that works well in some cases and solves some problems related to decision making.

At the same time, it is problematic and controversial because it places so much authority in a group — the board — that is not necessarily informed or responsible about the educational mission of the higher education institution it is empowered to oversee. We saw an example of this just last year at the University of Virginia.

So, whether you look back, or forward, 500 years, our colleges and universities in the United States have been a work in progress, usually with some interesting mix of noble aspirations and incomplete achievements.

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