Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the focus of higher education, particularly the hyper-vocational emphasis.  In my History of Higher Education course this week, we discussed whether higher education is a right or privilege.  Moreover, I believe we need to think more about the change that occurred during the transition from elite to mass higher education.  In today’s post, I want to again share a section from my monograph, Understanding Institutional Diversity in American Higher Education, that deals with this transition.

Photo courtesy: Reuters

With the massive enrollment growth during the 1920s, higher education began the transition from elite to mass higher education (Trow, 1974). The traditional elite student identified as full-time, residential student focused on liberal education with the goal of achieving success in high-status professions started to change. The differentiation between the historically prestigious and well-funded institutions and those serving a mass education role expanded the perceptional hierarchy among colleges and universities. Mass higher education offered opportunities for part-time, older students and those seeking technical and vocational education. In particular, the growth of junior colleges and the evolution of normal schools into teachers’ colleges provided a major expansion of the mass higher education sector.

The growth of junior colleges during the early 20th century represents one of the most remarkable growths of any institutional type throughout the his- tory of American higher education. The first junior colleges, as 2-year institutions were known during that time, multiplied during 1920s. By 1940, nearly 11% of all college students enrolled in junior colleges. Although many of the institutions were tied to local high schools, the junior college movement affected both the purposes and structure of American higher education (Geiger, 2011). The value of the community college movement rests largely in the sector’s emphasis on providing postsecondary opportunities to local communities and businesses. A uniquely American invention, 2-year institutions provided general education or vocational classes enabling students to later transfer to a 4-year campus or enter the workforce.

The original transfer function of the community college was frequently superseded by the technical and vocational curriculum. The University of California encouraged the state’s community colleges to focus more on vocational education, joined by the California state education establishment, who also strongly advocated for vocational training programs. These government and policy leaders supported the vocational emphasis through their ideology of supporting the “social value of aiding business” (Dougherty, 1994, p. 242). The local influence of junior colleges challenged the presence of the state universities. With new institutions outside of the control of the established higher education system in any given state, public university leaders often pushed junior colleges away from providing the first 2 years of college instruction and toward terminal technical and vocational programming. A goal of the state university leaders was to integrate junior colleges into the system, thereby also preserving the hierarchy and influence of the state flagship institutions.

As impressive as the growth of junior colleges was during their first few decades of existence, this pales in comparison to the growth that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, with many college enrollments increasing more than fivefold to over 2 million students. Estimates of community college growth suggest a new community college campus opened each week during the 1960s. Junior colleges served two primary student populations: (a) students interested in transferring to a 4-year institution and (b) students seeking terminal vocational degrees. Junior colleges continued to expand these missions and evolved into “community colleges.” With courses from traditional general education to short-term training programs and certificate offerings to com- munity education classes such as photography or computer training, community colleges expanded to a nearly impossible mission, with detractors often criticizing the attempt to be all things to all people. The complex and even competing origins and functions present challenges for the sector, particularly in light of the declining numbers of students transferring from com- munity colleges (Dougherty, 1994; Grubb, 1991). Despite the criticisms of the institutions because of mission expansion and from those who call for a reemphasis on transfer or vocational programs, the community college movement profoundly expanded the massification of higher education, particularly within the public sector. Despite uneven resources and pushback from other public institutions, higher education would be profoundly less diverse with- out the institutional type of the community college. With over 1,100 institutions nationally, community colleges represent one of the most diverse areas within all of higher education, serving students and offering programs often inaccessible at other institutions for academic, financial, or geographic reasons.

In addition to community colleges, the rise of normal schools, founded to standardize teacher training, and their transition into teachers’ colleges significantly grew postsecondary opportunity. Many of these institutions later became comprehensive colleges, greatly expanding the public higher education sector and accelerating the nation’s move toward mass higher education:

Normal schools, rather than the land grant universities, were the pioneers of higher education for the people. Almost everywhere the state universities and agricultural and mechanical colleges were developed at a central location or state capital, whereas the normal schools were scattered to the small country towns across the prairies. (Herbst, 1980, p. 227)

Unlike the traditionally prestigious private institutions and public flagships, normal schools exhibited much greater diversity, particularly related to gender. These institutions not only enrolled what today we would call “nontraditional” students but also served their financial and student services needs (Ogren, 2005). The dramatic growth of teacher education was the most substantial in a professional field in terms of both enrollment and educational outcomes.

As with many higher education institutions, normal schools faced pressures to attract students by adjusting their academic offerings to suit student desires. While the historical purpose of preparing professionally trained teachers remained, students were concerned about such an exclusive professional focus. Students “did not want to be trapped in a single-purpose school that provided them with a narrow vocational education” (Labaree, 2004, p. 26). As a result, normal schools expanded to offer a wide range of programs attractive to students and thus increased the social mobility of graduates.