Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Long View: The Dividing Line between High School and College Has Never Been Entirely Clear, Explains a Historian of American Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Long View: The Dividing Line between High School and College Has Never Been Entirely Clear, Explains a Historian of American Education

Article excerpt

Blurring the boundary between high school and college

In my undergraduate class on the history of education in America, I ask my students to use the term "higher education" to describe both high schools and colleges in the 19th century. The past is not the present in miniature, I tell them. In those days, high schools and colleges often resembled each other.

For one thing, only a small fraction of American youth went to high school. Incoming students had passed an entrance exam. The courses were rigorous, electives were rare, and whether they planned to find a job after graduation or go to college, most students worked hard. The teachers were sometimes called professors, and several high schools even granted bachelor's degrees (Labaree, 1988).

To illustrate the value of the high school diploma, I tell my students that graduates could enter medical and law schools without taking a single college course. Moreover, high school graduates--usually the male graduates--easily secured white-collar office jobs. And in many districts, 18-year-old women could teach elementary school. That gets the attention of my undergraduate teacher education majors!

Not every 19th-century high school was so demanding, to be sure. In many rural areas, the so-called high school was a room or two attached to the elementary school. But the better schools set the standard: A good high school was selective and serious, requiring as much time--four years--as college. And like college, it was a special place, bestowing on graduates a ticket to the middle class. No wonder fewer than one-fourth of the graduates bothered to go to college.

Even so, colleges proliferated throughout the 19th century, soaring from 22 in 1800 to more than 800 by 1880--at that point, there were 16 colleges for every 1 million Americans, a ratio never again reached. In that year, only four universities in England granted degrees; the state of Ohio, with 20 million fewer people, had 37 colleges (Labaree, 2017).

But some colleges were high schools in disguise. "All sorts of institutions assume the name of college," the president of Pennsylvania State University complained in 1892 (College Association of the Middle States and Maryland, 1893). One-fourth of the nation's small colleges were not truly colleges, according to the president of the University of Chicago (Boyer, 2015). Many impoverished colleges needed every tuition dollar, so they overlooked or scaled back their entrance requirements. On average, colleges attracted only 25 to 30 freshmen, and it was possible to get in without a high school diploma.

Many colleges tried to hold the line by putting "sub freshmen" in preparatory departments. In fact, by 1870, the number of sub freshmen in American colleges matched the collegiate enrollments. Those youngsters had their own courses, but they shared the faculty and they roamed the same campus as the collegians. While there was a distinction between secondary and college coursework, the boundary line could be hard to spot whenever students ranging in age from 13 to 25 were taught in the same buildings by the same teachers (VanOverbeke, 2008).

And there's another important reason why the definition of college was often blurry in the 19th century: New kinds of institutions offered a mixture of basic and advanced work to prepare students for particular careers. Most agricultural colleges, for example, expected their incoming students to have no more than an elementary school education (Geiger, 2015). Normal schools, created to train teachers, offered programs ranging in length from one to four years, although few students stayed more than two years. The least prepared students studied the same academic material as high school freshmen or sophomores. Students with stronger backgrounds could pursue a wide variety of academic courses--some comparable to high school, others to college --in addition to the pedagogical courses everyone took (Ogren, 2005). …

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