Education, Higher

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This entry includes 4 subentries:
African American Colleges
Colleges and Universities
Denominational Colleges
Women's Colleges

African American Colleges

The institutions of higher education currently referred to as the historically black colleges originated in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of the enslavement of African Americans. Because of the numerous slave revolts by literate slaves, literacy was denied most slaves in the South and formal education was prohibited. Throughout the North, free African Americans prior to and after the Civil War had limited opportunities for collegiate education. With the exception of Oberlin College in Ohio, which began admitting blacks in the 1830s, African Americans only sporadically attended a small number of white colleges. Often, blacks who attended white institutions during this period were light in complexion and not always known to be of African descent. As the push for emancipation of slaves became more pronounced in the 1850s and 1860s, several colleges were established to prepare the freed blacks of the North for leadership in the black communities. As with the history of white institutions of higher education, the earliest black colleges maintained preparatory departments and were often colleges in name only for decades.

Northern Black Colleges

Three institutions of higher education were established for black students prior to the Civil War. Each was established by a religious denomination. The Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia was established in 1837 at the behest of a Quaker, Richard Humphreys. Established originally as a school for boys, by the 1850s it had become a prominent coeducational private primary and high school. It moved to Cheyney, Pennsylvania, at the turn of the century and became Cheyney State College by the 1920s.

Lincoln University was also established in Pennsylvania prior to the end of the Civil War. Established by the Presbyterian Church as the Ashmun Institute for black males in 1854, this institution obtained collegiate status before any other founded for black students. The primary mission of Lincoln was to educate ministers to evangelize in Africa and to provide religious leadership to blacks in the United States. In an attempt to produce black leaders and professionals after emancipation, Lincoln established a law school and medical school. However, both closed in 1873. In 1953, the institution became coeducational.

Wilberforce University was established in 1856 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio shortly after the founding of Lincoln University. While institutions of education founded for blacks by whites were overwhelmingly single-sex, African Americans believed education important for both men and women and established coeducational institutions. In addition, black-founded colleges employed black faculty and staff of both sexes. For example, Wilberforce employed the well-known Oberlin graduate Mary Church Terrell in 1884 as well as the young Harvard-and German-trained W. E. B. DuBois in his first faculty position in 1894. These institutions offered liberal-arts and professional courses as well as teacher training.

A Federal University

After the legal abolishment of slavery, the federal government through the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands established thousands of schools throughout the South for the newly freed blacks. In addition, in an act of Congress, Howard University was established in 1867 in the nation's capital for the education of youth in the "liberal arts and sciences." The institution was named for General Oliver O. Howard, a Civil War hero and commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. In addition to the collegiate department, the university also had a normal department for the training of teachers as well as medical, law, and theology departments. Although identified as a black college, Howard was opened to students regardless of race and nationality. There were white students at the institution from its inception. Throughout its history, Howard University was viewed as the preeminent black institution due to its diverse student body and distinguished faculty and the aforementioned curricular offerings (later to include a school of dentistry as well as Ph.D. programs).

Private Black Colleges

Private black colleges proliferated after the Civil War. Founded primarily by black and white missionary organizations, these institutions varied greatly in quality and size. Those institutions established by the American Missionary Association (AMA), such as Fisk, Tougaloo, Talladega, Dilliard, and Atlanta University, offered the classical liberal arts degrees as well as teacher training and were among the leading institutions of higher education for blacks in the Deep South. The all-male Morehouse College (1867) and female Spelman College (1881) in Atlanta were both founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society and were leading examples of distinguished single-sex institutions. These institutions, established by New England missionaries, reflected the culture and curriculum of the colleges of that region—classical education and liberal culture.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (1868) and Tuskegee Institute (1881) were made famous by Booker T. Washington. He was a graduate of the former institution and founder of the latter. Washington ignited a heated debate within the black community at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decade of the twentieth century over the prominence of classical versus industrial education within the curriculum of black colleges. Although both Hampton Institute in Virginia and Tuskegee in Alabama were the preeminent industrial and manual training schools among black colleges, their primary mission was the training of teachers for the common schools of the South.

Private philanthropy played an important role in the shaping of private black colleges and was instrumental in the growth and success of Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. White and black religious denominations were key in establishing black colleges, but by the dawn of the twentieth century, many industrial philanthropists contributed to black higher education that stressed industrial education, which they believed more practical for the descendants of slaves. Among these supporters were the General Education Board, Anna T. Jeanes Foundation, Phelps-Stokes Fund, Carnegie Foundation, Julius Rosen-wald Foundation, and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation.

Land Grant Colleges

The Morrill Act of the United States Congress in 1862 provided for use of public taxes to establish public state institutions for each state's agricultural and industrial training but not at the expense of the liberal arts. As a result of segregation in the southern and border states, only three southern states provided for black colleges from this fund. Consequently, Congress passed a second Morrill Act in 1890 that prohibited discrimination with these funds. Thus, to comply with this new act, southern and border states established separate black land grant institutions that stressed vocational rather than academic courses. Seventeen black land grant institutions were established in the southern and border states. These institutions were colleges in name only until well into the twentieth century. A study of black higher education in 1917 noted that only one black land grant college offered college courses at that time. According to James Anderson, the bulk of black higher education was in the black private colleges. He noted that in 1926–1927, some 75 percent of all black college students were enrolled in private institutions.


Because slaves had been denied the right to an education, the building of a school system in the South was of paramount importance. As a result, most black colleges initially stressed teacher training in their curriculum. The preparation of ministers was also an important mission of the black private colleges, as it was for the earliest white colleges. More than 200 institutions were established for the higher education of black people beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, although most of the institutions did not function as true colleges until the illiterate freedmen could obtain a primary education. By the 1940s, only 117 black colleges survived. These primarily private colleges also offered professional education: by the end of World War II, they included two medical schools, three law schools, two schools of social work, two dental schools, two pharmacy schools, one school of journalism, one school of veterinary medicine, two library science schools, and nine schools of nursing.

The federal abolishment of legal segregation in education as a result of major Supreme Court rulings and acts of Congress from the 1950s and 1960s has resulted in black colleges being referred to as "historically" black colleges to reflect the desire to abolish the notion of racially segregated institutions. Due to a court order, black land grant colleges have been required to aggressively recruit white students and provide them with financial incentives to attend historically black public institutions. While nearly three-quarters of all black college students attend predominantly white institutions today, until the later twentieth century the historically black college produced generations of the nation's black leadership, including W. E. B. Du Bois (Fisk University), Mary McLeod Bethune (Scotia Seminary, now Barber-Scotia College), Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University of Pennsylvania), and Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College). Black college graduates were also the backbone of the segregated schools in the South. While current black college students have many options in terms of higher education, the historically black college's mission to train the leaders of the black community remains one of its central goals.


Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Bond, Horace Mann. Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. Lincoln University, Pa.: Lincoln University Press, 1976.

Logan, Rayford W. Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867–1967. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

Payne, Bishop Daniel A. "The History of the Origin and Development of Wilberforce University." Wilberforce University Archives, circa 1877–1878.

Perkins, Linda M. Fanny Jackson Coppin and the Institute for Colored Youth, 1865–1902. New York: Garland, 1987.

Work, Monroe N. Negro Yearbook and Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1941–46. Tuskegee, Ala.: Tuskegee Institute, 1946.

Linda M.Perkins

Colleges and Universities

The widespread system of American colleges and universities began modestly in 1636 with the founding of Harvard College (now Harvard University), which began classroom instruction in 1638. The other colonial colleges were the College of William and Mary, which was chartered in 1693 but began classes only in 1729; the Collegiate School (Yale University), founded in 1701; the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), chartered in 1746, with instruction in 1747; King's College (Columbia University), founded in 1754; the College, Academy, and Charitable School of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania), chartered in 1755 after collegiate classes began in 1754; the College of Rhode Island (Brown University), chartered in 1764, with instruction a year later; Queen's College (Rutgers—the State University), chartered in 1766, with instruction in 1771; and Dartmouth College, chartered in 1769, with classes beginning in 1770. Religious groups and their leaders generally controlled college administration and instruction. At first, the colleges had a Protestant Christian character, but with the advent of the Enlightenment the classical-religious curriculum expanded to include medicine, law, the sciences, and modern languages. The influence of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others helped bring secularism and modernism into the American academy.

American usage of the term "university" dates from 1779, with the rechartering of the College of Philadelphia as the University of the State of Pennsylvania without loss of private status. State-controlled colleges and universities appeared in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee by 1800. Other major developments prior to the Civil War included the growth of state and municipal colleges, coeducational collegiate facilities, professional education in dentistry and engineering, and military colleges. The Dartmouth College decision (1819) by the U.S. Supreme Court, a ruling barring state interference, became the Magna Charta of private and denominational colleges. Also significant were the increase of foreign study by Americans and the early provisions for graduate work. In the first half of the ninteenth century, colleges and universities sprang up all over the country, with the College (now University) of California chartered as a private institution in 1855. The federal government authorized land grants for colleges and universities in the Morrill Act (1862), enabling agricultural and engineering colleges that developed later into state universities to open. Students, too, actively shaped college and university life, often supplementing the limited official curriculum with literary societies, secret societies, and fraternities—organizations that exposed them to public speaking and current events.

After the Civil War, the number of colleges and universities continued to increase. In 1842, there were 101 colleges; in 1869, 563; and in 1900, 977. New institutions opened for women, African Americans, American Indians, and members of various faiths. Normal schools were upgraded to collegiate level. Many colleges added graduate and professional schools and became universities. The opening of the Johns Hopkins University (1876) brought German standards of research and scholarship to American higher education. Other changes included Harvard's institution of the undergraduate elective system; introduction of such new subjects as psychology, sociology, and anthropology; the extension of studies in the sciences and mathematics, history, economics, and modern languages; and the granting of funds under the second Morrill Act (1890) for instruction in agricultural and engineering colleges. Although this post-Civil War expansion of the curriculum incorporated most students' career needs, many students still focused their energies outside the classroom, especially on fraternities or sororities, athletics, and in "coffeehouse" organizations.

During the twentieth century, enrollment in colleges and universities climbed sharply upward, from 237,592 (1899–1900) to 8.1 million (1971–1972) to 14.5 million (1992–1993), although the number fell slightly in the mid-1990s to 14.3 million (1995–1996). The percentage of college students in the 18–21 age group rose from 4.01 (1899–1900) to over 50 percent by the 1970–1971 school year. By 1999, 25 percent of the American population over 25 years old had completed four or more years of college. (Roughly 8 percent held a master's degree or higher.) The number of women students and faculty members also increased perceptibly, as did the number of members of minority racial and ethnic groups and students with foreign citizenship.

Among the major developments of the twentieth century have been the growth of junior or community colleges, the proliferation of professional courses in all fields, the trend toward coeducation, the impact of the College Entrance Examination Board and the accrediting associations on admissions and standards, the federal govern-ment's contributions through such legislation as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (GI Bill of Rights) of 1944 and the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the eruption of student dissent and violence in the 1960s, the unionization of faculties, and the introduction of open-admission plans and external degrees. In the 1960s the curriculum expanded with such innovations as black, women's, and ethnic studies; the financial crisis of the early 1970s made many colleges and universities, especially the private and denominational institutions, insecure; and in the 1980s and 1990s critics of affirmative action and "political correctness" brought the debate over curricular changes into the mainstream of debate.

During the 1960s protesting students not only forced university administrations to abolish in loco parentis rules but helped bring about the diversity that has become a hallmark of higher education. Student ranks expanded to include more members of minority groups and nontraditional students, such as men and women past the age of twenty-two, who often work at least part-time and may raise families while attending college. Diversification has brought a wider array of needs to the attention of campus administrators. Special offices, centers, and advocacy groups for women and minority students were created in attempt to meet their unique needs, but not without controversy. Complaints of favoritism and voluntary resegregation by minority groups occasionally accompanied such centers.

By the 1970s, 44 percent of the 2,600 colleges and universities were under governmental (mostly state) control and had 75 percent of the total enrollment. The remaining 56 percent of schools comprised institutions under denominational direction and those under the governance of self-perpetuating secular boards of trustees. A number of denominational colleges, though, have secularized the composition of their boards of trustees so as to qualify for much needed public funds. Financial pressures in the 1970s also forced private institutions to expand enrollments, raise tuition rates, and curtail some services. Many students relied on scholarships and grants from public and private sources to attend.

Colleges and universities also faced other new difficulties. One serious issue, especially for the junior faculty during the period of widespread protest in the 1960s and 1970s, was that of academic freedom and tenure. Pressures to limit or abolish tenure came from within and outside higher education. To some extent, criticism of faculty derived from the activism of some professors and from the prevalence of collective bargaining in some areas. The question of equal opportunity and affirmative action programs proved to be equally perplexing and controversial. Although accessibility barriers to higher education for racial and ethnic minorities and for women fell, some forms of discrimination continued. One source of dissatisfaction was the feeling that growing attention to the financial and other needs of the low-income groups was accompanied by difficulties for students from middle-income groups.

Mirroring the increasing diversity of student bodies, the professoriate likewise expanded somewhat to better reflect the makeup of the U.S. population. In part because of affirmative action initiatives by colleges and universities, the numbers of female, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American professors increased through the 1980s and 1990s, although not at the rate desired by many advocates. The numbers of women studying in such nontraditional fields as law and medicine have not been matched by proportionate numbers of tenured female professors in these fields. At the end of the twentieth century, more part-time faculty members, and many women and members of minority groups, fell into this category of low-paid instructors.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, curricular offerings and types of higher-education institutions diversified as well. Partly a result of student protests during the 1960s, colleges and universities expanded offerings in such subjects as the history, music, and religions of non-Western cultures and literature by women and members of minority groups. The number of such academic departments as women's studies and African American studies increased, and some colleges and universities introduced racial or ethnic studies requirements to guarantee students the exposure to ideas outside the traditional white male European heritage. Critics dubbed this new wave of interests "political correctness" and argued that it inhibited dialogue, that the expanded curriculum was less rigorous than the traditional curriculum and therefore poorly served students and intellectual life. Best-selling books expanded the discussion beyond academe.

Beginning in the mid-1970s there was also a diversification of institutional structures. Community colleges expanded and many public institutions and some private colleges offered evening and weekend classes and courses via cable television and, in the late 1990s, via the Internet. More institutions took their courses to the students, offering courses in prisons, on military bases, and at community centers. At the same time, more colleges distinguished themselves from the mainstream. Historically black colleges and a few remaining women's colleges clarified their missions, advertising racial or single-sex atmospheres that fostered more success among minorities and women than racially mixed and coeducational schools. Similarly, new tribal colleges served Native American students.

At the end of the century, public universities continued their missions of teaching, research, and service to society, with research receiving much attention. As federal expenditures for research increased, the popular press criticized universities for spending research money unwisely and professors for spending more time on research than teaching. As a result, more stringent teaching requirements, downsizing, more efficient business practices to lower tuitions, and elimination of academic tenure were some of the solutions proposed by state legislatures and some university administrations. Along with diversification of colleges and universities came inflation of grades and educational credentials, making some bachelors' and graduate degrees of questionable value. At the same time employers required more and more extensive educational backgrounds. All of these factors guaranteed that colleges and universities would be important, and contested, territory for years to come, as the United States adjusted to post-Cold War educational and economic conditions.


Brickman, William W., and Stanley Lehrer, eds. A Century of Higher Education. New York: Society for the Advancement of Education, 1962.

Brubacher, John S., and Willis Rudy. Higher Education in Transition: A History of American Colleges and Universities, 1636–1968. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Chamberlain, Mariam K., ed. Women in Academe: Progress and Prospects. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1988.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Jencks, Christopher, and David Riesman, The Academic Revolution. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969.

Kerr, Clark. The Great Transformation in Higher Education, 1960–1980. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Parsons, Talcott, and Gerald M. Platt. The American University. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Riesman, David and Verne A. Stadtman, eds. Academic Transformation: Seventeen Institutions Under Pressure. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Rudolph, Frederick. The American College and University: A History. New York: Knopf, 1962.

William W.Brickman

Christine A.Ogren/c. w.

See alsoCurriculum ; Education ; Education, Higher: African American Colleges ; Education, Higher: Denominational Colleges ; Education, Higher: Women's Colleges ; Intelligence Tests ; Multiculturalism ; Pluralism ; Schools, Single-Sex .

Denominational Colleges

The establishment of institutions of higher learning in America was fostered by the central assertion of Puritanism that laity should possess the ability to read the Bible and understand theology. This principle made New England one of the most literate societies in the world during the seventeenth century; and it was upon this premise that Harvard College, the first denominational college in the English colonies, was established in 1636. A little more than thirty years later, Anglicans established the College of William and Mary in Virginia in order to educate the laity—male laity—to carry out their errand in the New World. Similar denominational institutions of faith and learning soon followed with the establishment of Yale, Princeton, Brown, Pennsylvania, and King's College (now Columbia) early in the eighteenth century. In 1789, largely through the efforts of Bishop John Carroll, Roman Catholics established their own institution of higher learning with the founding of Georgetown College. Other Catholic institutions such as St. Joseph's College and St. Louis College soon followed. By 1830, American Catholics had founded fourteen colleges. The curriculum in both Protestant and Catholic colleges mirrored the medieval educational model with students studying the Bible as well as ancient languages and the classics.

During the course of the next two hundred years, approximately nine hundred colleges were founded throughout the nation with heavy concentrations in the northeast and midwestern states. With the advent of the Civil War, however, few of these institutions of higher learning remained operable. Of the one hundred and eighty-two colleges that remained, some one hundred and sixty of them were denominationally related institutions. In part, this growth was attributable to the decentralized ecclesiastical structures of Protestant denominations that encouraged lay participation, a concern for educated leadership, and fund-raising. Not only were the percentages of denominational colleges growing during this era, but their curriculums and student populations were expanding as well.

The year 1828 saw the publication of "Original Papers in Relation to a Course of Liberal Education," in which the Yale report recommended that the curriculum of colleges should be extended beyond educating the nation's male citizenry in Christianity, the classics, and republicanism. At the same time, European schools of thought began to take hold in America. Scottish common sense realism, a philosophy widely espoused at colleges such as Princeton, held great sway in schools during this era, but so did the teachings of the Enlightenment and German idealism. Further efforts to educate the populace were taken in 1843 with the establishment of the interdenominational Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West. Ordained clergy often presided over these institutions, which came to reflect and articulate the ideals of the Protestant establishment.

Other religious institutions, such as Oberlin College, resisted some of the social conventions of the day. Founded in 1833, Oberlin soon gained the support of the popular revivalist Charles Grandison Finney and attracted students charged with being bound together in a "solemn covenant" and pledged to "the plainest living and highest thinking." Oberlin's admission policies were remarkably progressive for their time. The first class consisted of twenty-nine male and fifteen female students. In 1841, the college conferred bachelor's degrees upon three female students, making it the nation's first institution of higher education to do so. Such egalitarian measures were extended to people of color as well. By the mid-1830s Oberlin was advertising the admission of any youth "irrespective of color." Over time these efforts were a great success as nearly one-third of the college's graduates by the turn of the century were African American.

Several social currents contributed to the proliferation of denominational colleges in the late nineteenth century. Foremost were the country's industrial development and its geographical expansion. This growth, albeit modest at first, resulted in the expansion of the upper class, many of whom regarded higher education as a symbol of status. A result of these class assumptions was the increased numerical demands on the nation's institutions. But these market forces also helped to modernize the nation, consequently increasing its need for so-called "human capital formation." As the nation's need for professional workers increased, so did the demand for and opportunities of an educated middle class. Yet in the post–Civil War decade, only five hundred colleges were still solvent.

To stem the emerging demand for education, Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 that helped establish more than seventy land-grant colleges. While seemingly inconsequential to the life of denominational colleges, the passage of this act helped to break the monopoly held by churches in higher education. Further loosening this stronghold was the growing internal bureaucracy found within denominations. With this latter development came two important changes. First, the creation of internal bureaucracies tended to distance educational institutions from their sponsoring denominations. This increased distance affected the shape of the curriculum and the way the mission of the school was carried out. Second, as these structures grew more complex internally, there tended to be less interdenominational cooperation. The balkanization of education agendas unwittingly served to severely undermine the cultural dominance several mainline Protestant denominations had attained.

At the same time, societal demands for an educated class were rapidly changing; this led to the development of an appreciable gap between both Catholic and Protestant curriculums and the needs of an industrializing nation. The long-standing "classical" curriculums of Latin, Greek, ethics, and rhetoric offered by these institutions did not meet the demands of the new economy. While the curriculums of a number of Protestant institutions gradually changed to meet these demands, Catholic institutions were slower to change. Their resistance was due in part to structural issues. Unlike Protestant institutions, Catholic colleges in America remained modeled on a European Jesuit system of instruction that combined secondary and collegiate education into a seven-year program. It would take several decades before the educational programs of Catholic colleges had adjusted to the prevailing patterns of American secondary education and economic change.

Protestant denominational colleges underwent a period of consolidation in the early twentieth century. Typically, the educational mission of schools fell under the auspices of appointed boards whose ideas of a religious-based education were often more broadly construed than those of the respective churches. Although some boards produced specific guidelines in determining the character or definition of church-related schools, among them Presbyterians, others simply sought to develop "Christian gentlemen" among their students. Protestant colleges were increasingly divesting themselves of their specific Christian heritage in order to serve the public at large. Further distancing church-related institutions from their historic roots was the emergence of philanthropic foundations whose terms often precluded funding colleges falling under sectarian controls. Faced with the mounting costs of running such institutions, many schools redefined their relationships with their denominations in order to qualify for funding.

Church-related institutions went through a difficult period between the 1960s and the 1980s. Skepticism among the nation's student population toward organized religion coupled with mounting costs and increased competition by tax-supported schools forced several colleges to either sever ties with their respective denominations or close altogether. In the midst of these changes, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists from various denominations stepped in to fill what they perceived to be a void in American higher education. Establishing their own institutions of higher learning, such as Oral Roberts University, with decidedly faith-based curriculums, evangelicals were widely successful in attracting prospective students seemingly alienated by the concessions traditional religious institutions had made to American culture. While many publications and leading spokespersons predicted the not-too-distant end of denominational colleges, a great many remain viable centers of higher education.


Axtell, James. The School upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Parsonage, Robert R., ed. Church Related Higher Education: Perceptions and Perspectives. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1978.

Power, Edward J. A History of Catholic Higher Education in the United States. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce Publishing, 1958.

Pattillo Jr., Manning M., and Donald M. MacKenzie. Church-Sponsored Higher Education in the United States. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1966.

Tewksbury, Donald G. The Founding of American Colleges and Universities before the Civil War. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Original edition published in 1932.

Kent A.McConnell

See alsoBrown University ; Harvard University ; Land Grants: Land Grants for Education ; Morrill Act ; Oberlin College ; Princeton University ; University of Pennsylvania ; William and Mary, College of ; Yale University .

Women's Colleges

Once the only option available to women wanting to pursue higher education, women's colleges have become victims of their own success. With more American women than men enrolled in college during 2000–2001, many educators questioned whether all-female colleges have outlived their purpose.


Colleges for women grew from the female seminaries of the early nineteenth century. Based upon principles of "republican motherhood" and imbued with religiosity, Emma Willard's Troy Seminary (Troy, New York, 1821) and Catharine Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary (Hart-ford, Connecticut, 1824), among others, educated young women to be intelligent wives and mothers who would rear literate and moral sons capable of governing the new nation. Some of these institutions, such as Mount Holyoke (South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1837), adopted the vocational mission of training women to teach. With a curriculum for educating teachers and an endowment supporting lower-income students, Mount Holyoke rose to the forefront of the female academies.

Although labeled "seminaries" rather than "colleges" and open to girls as young as twelve, many early female schools offered curricula comparable to those of men's liberal arts colleges. Seminary students took Greek, Latin, French, botany, geology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, American history, and physiology, in addition to "traditionally feminine" studies in fine arts, music, and dancing. Between 1830 and 1870, the 107 female semi-naries and academies covered most subjects addressed in the upper levels of men's colleges. In this way, the largely northeastern female academies of the era combined concern with "female qualities" like piety, purity, and domesticity with mastery of subjects considered off-limits for women. They thus expanded but left intact the boundaries of conventional womanhood.

The Development of Women's Higher Education

In the 1850s, as the common-school movement developed across the United States, a widespread need for teachers prompted the formation of "normal schools." Considered the more "nurturing" of the sexes, women were welcomed into schools as teachers. The Civil War with its casualties heightened demand for nurses. Women answered the call, increasing demands for their advanced training. Most of those (58.9 percent) who pursued higher education in America at this time did so at single-sex institutions.

By the 1860s, a growing push toward coeducation brought the issue of women's training to the forefront. In the wake of the Civil War, many previously all-male colleges wrestled with the question of coeducation. By 1889–1890, 39,500 women, or 70.1 percent of American female collegians, attended coeducational schools. Women's schools—many of them the former seminaries such as Mount Holyoke, now renamed as colleges—claimed the rest, a decline in the percentage of those choosing women-only, but still a massive increase in number: 16,800 students, up from 6,500 in 1869–1870.

Resistance to women's higher education remained, however. Dr. Edward Clarke's widely read Sex in Education (1873) argued that higher education was unnatural and harmful to women. Schools such as Stanford, University of Chicago, and University of Wisconsin, alarmed by growing female enrollments, introduced curbs, in the form of quotas and segregated classes. In the Northeast and South, some of the oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities steadfastly refused coeducation. Rather than opening their doors to women, some schools chose to form "coordinate" institutions. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard's stance prompted the founding of Radcliffe College (1894), while in New York City, Barnard College (1889) served as Columbia's "female annex."

In response to the continued exclusion of women from many institutions, several new and independent female colleges opened their doors: Elmira College (Elmira, New York) in 1855, Vassar (Poughkeepsie, New York) in 1865, Wellesley (Wellesley, Massachusetts) and Smith (Northampton, Massachusetts) in 1875, and Bryn Mawr (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania) in 1885.

Coming into Their Own

In the 1890s, following a national trend, many women's colleges shed their preparatory departments and recruited elite faculty, both male and female, to enhance their prestige. The institutions later known as the "Seven Sister Schools" came into their own academically, strengthening their curricula and instituting student governments as well as intercollegiate athletics and debate teams. Although Vassar College led the others in attaining national recognition, all took on serious roles in educating women not only for motherhood and womanhood but for careers in the public and private sectors as well. In the South, the still largely ornamental and wholly white "ladies seminaries" also became increasingly academic. Still, they continued to exhibit the conservative thinking of their environs by displaying greater reluctance to embrace women's expanding opportunities than did their northern predecessors.

Prior to the 1920s, most collegiate women were Protestant, white, and middle or upper middle class. Whereas coeducational state colleges attracted farmers' daughters and other members of the working classes, the women's colleges of the South and Northeast, with their high tuitions, residence fees, and limited financial aid, attracted the wealthier offspring of professional families. These schools offered an education that would not jeopardize their students' femininity. Students lived and studied under faculty supervision. Prohibitions against dancing and other "suspect activities" were common.

Many early female college graduates eschewed or delayed traditional patterns of marriage and childbearing, instead continuing their education or pursuing careers. Some enrolled in graduate programs ranging from science and medicine to English and music. Others taught or pursued paid or unpaid employment on academic and professional boards, in charities and other reform-oriented societies. As careers grew more common, many colleges altered their curricula. Rather than offering only liberal arts courses, many added instruction in education, home economics, and other social sciences.

In the 1910s and 1920s, greater numbers of Jewish, Catholic, and African American women, as well as recent immigrants, began to seek higher education. When they did, they often found the doors of select women's colleges closed. Tacit as well as explicitly articulated policies barred the admission, in particular, of qualified African American and Jewish students. In other instances, while enrollment may have been permitted, the nonwhite and non-Protestant students, often poorer, found tuition too steep and scholarship money too limited.

Some all-women's schools in urban areas enrolled greater numbers of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities. At Radcliffe in 1936–1937, for example, 24.8 percent of the women enrolled were Jewish, whereas at Mount Holyoke and Wellesley, that percentage stood at 6.5 and 9.0, respectively. Discrimination, however, prompted African Americans and Catholics to open their own women's schools. Bennett College (1926) in Greensboro, North Carolina, joined Spelman (1924), the former Atlanta seminary, as a leading educator of African American women. For Catholics, Trinity College of Washington, D.C. (1897), and the College of Notre Dame in Maryland (1896) increased their enrollments and liberalized their curricula.

Steps Forward—and Back

The World War II era changed American higher education. Shortages of male workers paved the way for the entry of women into new fields like engineering, while decreased enrollments forced many all-male schools to relax prohibitions against females. In 1943, Harvard opened its classrooms to women through the "Harvard-Radcliffe agreement." Other bastions of male scholarship also admitted women to their law, medical, and professional graduate programs.

At the war's end, however, the trends largely reversed, as troops came home and the GI Bill encouraged male enrollment. The percentage of women enrolled in higher education dropped to its lowest point in the twentieth century. Schools such as Vassar saw a 50 percent drop in the percentage of women pursuing chemistry and physics degrees between 1945 and 1955. The percentage of female doctorates in the sciences declined, while the percentages of those opting for marriage over careers increased.

At the women's colleges of the 1950s, many administrators began to reinvoke the language of republican motherhood in discussions of female higher education. At Radcliffe, President W. K. Jordan welcomed incoming classes by assuring them that their "education would prepare them to be splendid wives and mothers." Mills College (1852) in California inserted cooking, home decorating, and flower arranging into its curriculum. Across the women's colleges of the country, and the coeducational schools as well, engagement, rather than a professional degree or satisfying career, marked the ultimate in female collegiate fulfillment.

Women's Colleges in the New Century: Challenges and Possibilities

The women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s radically altered American higher education. As most all-male colleges opened to women, many of the all-women's colleges decided to open to men, citing, among other reasons, declining interest in single-sex education and decreased need, due to societal changes, for the separate education of the sexes. Vassar College became coeducational, while Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Mills affiliated with coeducational colleges, sometimes against students' wishes. As the twentieth century drew to a close, Radcliffe merged entirely with Harvard. Whereas one hundred years before, women's colleges had educated almost 29 percent of the female college population, at the end of the 1990s, only 1.3 percent of female collegians earned their degrees from a single-sex school.

Although increasingly challenged to justify their place and purpose, women's colleges still claimed support. A study of women executives in Fortune 500 companies found a disproportionately high number of female college attendees. Likewise, examinations of Who's Who and other female achievement catalogs have found higher than proportional numbers of women's college graduates among their ranks.


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Diana B.Turk

See alsoMount Holyoke College ; Schools, Single-Sex ; Seven Sisters Colleges .

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