For a very long time America has led the world in higher education, quantitatively at least. In 1825 England still had only two
universities, Oxford and Cambridge. The United Stutee ulrcudv hud over fifty colleges for a smaller population. By now, in addition to hundreds of junior colleges (with two-year courses), teachers’ colleges and special schools, there are over 2,000 universities, colleges or other institutions with four-year courses leading to bachelors’ degrees, though only some of these provide postgraduate work as well, for masters’ degrees and doctorates.
Nearly half of all people aged nineteen are in full-time education, but only half of these successfully complete full four-year courses for bachelors’ degrees. Some attend junior colleges with two-year courses (from which they may transfer); most start full four-year degree courses. Most students receive federal loans to cover part of the cost of their studies; much smaller numbers receive federal grants, or scholarships or bursaries from other sources. Virtually all pay part of their costs themselves, from family contributions or from part-time work or both.
Most students aiming at bachelors’ degrees take the four years (freshman, sophomore, junior and senior) consecutively at the same institution, but some interrupt their courses. Some start late in life and may spread their courses over several years. For each stage of the course it is necessary to gain adequate average grades over a number of courses, and credits gained at one stage can be accepted for a later stage after an interval, if necessary with change from one institution to another. For the freshman year, courses usually cover a wide range, and with each later year there is scope for more specialisation. Essentially, the system by which a person becomes a college graduate is a progression from that which makes him or her a high school graduate.
About one-fifth of college graduates continue with studies for masters’ or doctors’ degrees, in their own major subjects or for professional qualifications in law, medicine, business, etc., which involve two to four postgraduate years. Postgraduate schools admit students on the basis of their grades in bachelors’ degree studies, and require minimum-level passes in appropriate preparatory subjects.
Most college students are in ‘public’ institutions, a minority in ‘private’ ones. Every state has its own full university system, and in a big state there are many separate state campuses, general and special, at different levels. In terms of research output, and of Nobel prizes won by academic staff, the most prestigious is the University of California at Berkeley (across the bay from San Francisco). It, and the University’s campus at Los Angeles, are the two major
A university graduation ceremony.
institutions in the California state system, but there are many dozens of other campuses in that system. Other states have parallel systems, often with one principal campus, with up to 50,000 students, in a small town in which the university is the main focus of activity. Most big cities have their own city-funded universities – in some cases with several campuses – often separate from the state system. In general state and city colleges now charge tuition fees which cover a minor part of their costs, at least for state or local residents – though students from other states pay several times as much.
The oldest, and in some ways the most prestigious, colleges are private, funded partly from their endowments, partly by contributions from business and, above all, former students. A few receive some state or city grants as well. But in general they need to charge high fees for tuition, averaging about five times the rates charged by equivalent state colleges for local residents.
Some of the best-known private universities are the oldest ones in the Northeast, known informally as the Ivy League. These include Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The research carried on at Harvard and at its newer neighbour in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has contributed to the prosperity of the Boston area, though other private and public universities nearby also have some share in this development.
These colleges are all quite small, but there are also the yet smaller
institutions of the Little Ivy League, as well as many hundreds of other private colleges all over the United States. Their variety is extreme. Some students prefer a small college for the sake of the closer contact with the professors than in the state colleges, some for religious or other reasons. But some of their graduates go on to state university postgraduate courses.
Until 1960 most of the private institutions, including the small liberal arts colleges, were for either men or women only. Since then there has been a revolutionary change. By now almost all the former men’s colleges have become coeducational and the most selective of them may have raised their academic standards by attracting many of the cleverest women. About three hundred former women’s colleges now take men as well, and some of them are finding that the men dominate the staff and student life. In 1987 about a hundred allfemale colleges were still resisting the trend of change, defending their special role in the educational system but suffering a decline in applications for admission. Conversion to coeducation is still continuing. Meanwhile, the number of women students had increased until by the mid-1980s they outnumbered the men.
The wave of disorderly student protest of the 1960s seems to have subsided. It began with support for the civil rights movement of that time, in the last years of race discrimination. Then came demonstrations against the Vietnam war, then demands for more student participation in the running of the universities, and demands for new types of courses such as black studies. There were objections to examinations, and to the competitiveness they engender. But since the early 1970s there has been a change, with students aiming again at academic success within the system. At the same time, there have been changes in the courses chosen, with a new preference for types of study which can be expected to be useful for careers in business. There is less interest in liberal arts. On the other hand, a surge of interest in computer studies fell away when the computer industry ran into trouble. A decline in concern with social issues can be seen from a comparison of the attitudes expressed by students in 1972 and 1982 (as shown by the survey quoted on page 136).
The individual young person knows that his or her prospects of success in life depend on education more than on any other single factor. So there is an ever-increasing demand for educational opportunities. At the same time, it is generally recognised that even from the material point of view, economic development up till now has owed much to the skills and abilities which grow through
education, and Гог the traditional Americans, respect for learning is reinforced by a doctrine that it is an investment that brings the community an economic return as well as social and cultural improvement.
Russian technological success has brought an unpleasant shock to American pride. Even the most conservative elements are impressed by the signs that the Russians have equalled or even surpassed the Americans in achievements which depend on a great mass of trained talent and skill, and the first reaction to the Russian achievements in space was a new support for greater efforts in the educational field.
In the 1960s much of the impetus came from claims that part of the population (mainly black) enjoyed inferior access to education, and to diplomas and degrees, because of the conditions and the nature of society. Tremendous efforts were made to counteract the effects of social disadvantage, but the mixture of values caused confusion, and weakened the old concern with excellence.
The results of the vast increase in educational expenditure have been disappointing. In 1976 the National Centre for Education Statistics in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, produced a survey, The Condition of Education. It showed that between 1963 and 1975 the average scores by high school seniors (18 year-olds) in the Scholastic Aptitude tests (graded on a scale from 800 to 200) had fallen from 478 to 434 in mathematics and from 502 to 472 in reading and writing. A disturbing number of students were far below any reasonable standard after twelve years of school, and some of these were nevertheless going forward to higher education. More than a quarter of the first-year students in Ohio State University were below minimum competence in mathematics and English, and remedial courses were provided for them. There was a fear that the vast efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged had produced few benefits, and that the quality of the system as a whole had declined. A new concern with the pursuit of excellence and a new insistence on high standards, both in technology and in other fields, has lately brought some improvement to the system as a whole, though surveys of the mid-1980s found that more than one in ten of seventeen year-olds could not read and write well enough to write answers to a simple set of questions such as those on a job – application form. In January 1987, President Reagan proposed that there should be a minimum high school curriculum of four years of English. In a document supporting his State of the Union message he put forward the aim of ‘raising literacy standards dramatically’.
Changing aspirations of students, 1967-82
Percentages of first year students hoping to continue, after graduation, to
1 How Гиг il»t I he іенропнен indicate an increasing materialism? or
2 Do the responses indicate a decline in social concern?
3 Discuss the change indicated in the responses to number 8, bearing in mind that one of the objects of the student protest movement at the end of the 1960s was the grading system, А, В, C, D (very good, good, etc.) on the ground that grades were elitist.
4 Discuss the answers to number 10, in relation to the setting of lower grade requirements for members of disadvantaged groups: and in the light of the fact that Asians are now showing above-average grades. Is all such discrimination wrong?
1970 75 84 70 75 84
College Enrolment by Sex
Public School Enrolment and Expenditures
Educational Attainment (Persons 25 years old and over)
4 years or more of high school
100— 1 I
1 Consider the fact that in 1984 almost three-quarters of the population had completed at least four years of high school, in relation to the finding that one-fifth of young adults were functionally illiterate (compared with one- tenth in Britain and almost none in Japan).