The Evolution of Education for College Students

Evolution of Education for College Students

Over the years, we’ve heard arguments about the pros and cons of a college education. Some argue they’re simply not worth it, leaving graduates in debt when they can only find low-paying jobs. Unfortunately, not every college degree can easily help you get a job. However, others argue that a college education of any kind can improve your chances of landing a high-paying job. In any case, this debate isn’t new. Harvard was founded in the early 1600s, and today there are millions of students in the US with a combined total of over $1 trillion in student debt. 

There was a time when doctors and nurses didn’t need college degrees. Most workers learned through apprenticeships or worked the family farms and businesses. So why has college always been a subject of debate? Let’s take a look at the evolution of education for college students over the last few hundred years. 

The Early Days

Several universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, still operate from the Colonial days. These universities were originally funded by the colony and catered to religious audiences. Unfortunately, other school systems weren’t developed, so college students’ ages varied.

The original colleges were founded by Puritans and followed British models, focusing on general education. Essentially, there were no majors or minors like there are now. Instead, the goal was to educate them on religious values and help them learn basic topics to eventually run the family business. 

At this time, tuition costs made attending college unaffordable for most families. However, there was also the issue of losing their son to college when they needed them to tend to the land. Therefore, these colleges had very few students, and many of them ended up dropping out within the first few years.

There was a college boom in the early 19th century, and the number of schools increased, including more subject-focused colleges. There were scientific schools, military schools, and teaching schools. Additionally, they increased the number of programs available, including medicine, science, agriculture, and law. Also, during this time, we saw the first state universities, such as the University of Georgia. 

Colleges like Oberlin College began admitting women in the 1800s. However, many people still didn’t trust college education. Many laborers, especially craftsmen, primarily used apprenticeships to learn, so the idea of a scientific college was strange to them. Even though more students were admitted, attending college was a social marker reserved only for the wealthy.

The Civil War disrupted the college experience as many men went off to war, and there was physical damage to the buildings. Instead, these buildings were turned into hospitals for soldiers. 

The 1900s

Not soon after, in the 1900s, institutions were created to serve those excluded by the original education system, including women and people of different religions and races. Black colleges were restricted to grade school and agricultural-focused instruction, offering little actual college education. Other colleges opted for co-end land grants even though women were separated from men and were expected to study women-centric topics. 

Still, at this time, the goal of college was social status rather than earning a degree. As a result, some students only took two-year courses, while others didn’t complete degree programs because there were no jobs for them that others couldn’t get without one. Still, attendance continued to rise, and tuition didn’t see any significant increases. However, the price was still too high for most families. 

Enrollment dropped again during World War I as most men left for the war. Colleges were turned into training camps. However, at this point, most medical schools require some college science for admission. Around the 1920s, college students started building what we now know as undergraduate life. College students began partying, gambling, and creating their own alcohol during Prohibition. 

Also, secondary schools expanded nationwide around this time with increasing high school programs and a growing number of college students. As a result, college tuition started to rise, showing a drastic increase over the next decade. 


After World War II, colleges and universities started to become more advanced with selective programs and expanded the types of students admitted. Community colleges and for-profit institutions started to thrive. Student enrollment was at an all-time high in the next decade, growing to almost three million in the 1940s. Around this time, women represented almost half of all enrollment, but that number fell in the next decade. Some colleges implemented study abroad programs and smaller classes to attract more students. 

In the 1970s, we saw the introduction of grants, which increased the number of students. By the end of the decade, several financial aid options were available, with most of the grants changing to loans, introducing us to the types of college debt we know today. In the 1980s, most students who needed financial aid received loans instead of grants, shifting the college landscape to something closer to what we know today. 

During this time, the government began working on programs to help underserved students afford a college education. For example, affirmative action created more inclusive admission processes for women and students of color. During this time, education became less about social status and more about transitioning from education to work. At this time, many jobs required a college degree

Unfortunately, the cost of college drastically increased, even though graduates earned more on average than high school graduates. Additionally, the cost of college outdrove inflation, making it too expensive for many families. 

Present Day

Enrollment rose in the 1990s and 2000s despite increasing tuition costs, which led to more loans. In recent years, colleges have started to use more technology to enhance the experience. Now, many colleges offer online classes, and there are several completely online universities. 

How Has College Evolved?

It’s hard to believe there was once a time when college didn’t exist. The education system has transformed other industries, giving individuals the education they need to become doctors, lawyers, writers, and creatives. However, just like for individuals in the 1600s, college isn’t necessary for everyone. You can’t deny the education landscape has changed over the last few hundred years, but the debate still remains. 

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