An Overview of American Higher Education

By Baum, Sandy; Kurose, Charles et al. | The Future of Children, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

An Overview of American Higher Education

Baum, Sandy, Kurose, Charles, McPherson, Michael, The Future of Children

This overview of the American higher education system offers a broad picture of who pursues education beyond high school and for what purposes. What schools do these students attend, for how long, and with what result? Who pays for all this education? In answering these questions, our aim is to provide a useful context for readers as they pursue understanding of the particular topics discussed in more depth in the rest of this issue of Future of Children.

Our focus is undergraduate education, and we leave aside other important aspects of some higher education enterprises, including research, graduate, and professional education, and commercial sports entertainment. Because our major interest is in public policy, we give primary attention to the sectors where governments' role in finance is greatest: public colleges and universities and the for-profit education industry. These are also the institutions attended by more than 80 percent of postsecondary students. (1)

Over the past fifty years, the American college scene has changed dramatically. For example, the bulk of formal job training in this country now occurs in places called colleges. The great majority of U.S. high school graduates now pursue some form of education after high school, a path that has become substantially more common over time. These days, more undergraduate students are enrolled in community colleges than in public universities. (2) And among students who are attending private institutions, close to a third of them now attend places run for profit. (3)

None of these things was true fifty years ago. The size and scope of the changes suggest that a brief review of what American higher education was like in the early 1960s, and of all that was about to happen to it, would not be out of place.

Changing Context for Higher Education

The early 1960s was a time of quiet ambition in American higher education. The baby boomers were beginning to overcrowd grade schools and high schools, but the tidal wave of postwar births had not yet hit college. Undergraduate education was operated mainly through private nonprofit colleges and through public four-year institutions financed by state governments. Degree-credit enrollment in for-profit colleges was too small to track. The Soviet Union's lead in the space race (Sputnik was launched in 1957) strengthened the American will to develop a more educated population. But despite the modest inroads made by Dwight Eisenhower's National Defense Student Loans, public consensus held that the federal government had no continuing responsibility to pay for college. Total tax revenues as a share of personal income were about where they are now, but there was then no strong national movement to push taxes down. Indeed, looking at state, local, and federal taxes and spending combined, the national budget was in surplus, with taxes and spending amounting to 26 percent and 23 percent of gross domestic product, respectively. (4)

With a prosperous economy and relatively small cohorts of students graduating from high school (the high school class of 1960 was born in 1942, when many would-be fathers were in the service), state investments in expanding college opportunity seemed both smart and fiscally feasible--at least for those whose planning horizons were short enough to overlook the impact of the baby boom. Behind the broad optimism of the early 1960s, with the public's widely shared belief in the efficacy of government and confidence in the value of higher education, were less encouraging realities. Access to higher education was radically unequal, whether measured by family income or by racial and ethnic background. And the opportunities for second chances in education, now taken for granted in American higher education, were far less abundant fifty years ago.

It was in this environment that Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, put forward his bold "master plan," which promised to put a publicly funded college experience within financial and geographic reach of every high school graduate in the state. …

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