The Evolution of the College Degree


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The Evolution of the College Degree

What was once the province of wealthy young men, the college degree, is now open to more people than ever before. How has the college experience evolved throughout human history, and what’s in store?

11th, 12th, 13th centuries

The earliest medieval European universities are established, as groups of young men seek out instructors to teach them in informal settings, typically gathering wherever space was available. Later, these “universities” are formally granted charters, and some remain supported by the church.

Students are male, as even noble or upper-class girls are taught inside the home with a focus on their future roles as wives and mothers.


The University of Bologna becomes the first institution of higher education in the western world, becoming the first to use the word universitas to describe collections of students being taught by eminent thinkers.


Oxford University is founded after King Henry II bans English students from attending the University of Paris. Such institutions operate with similar methods:

Bachelor’s degree

3-5 years of study

Master’s degree

6 years of study

What they studied

  • Arithmetic
  • Geometry
  • Astronomy
  • Music theory
  • Grammar
  • Logic
  • Rhetoric
  • Physics
  • Metaphysics
  • Moral philosophy

Once a student earns a Master of Arts, he can leave the university to pursue additional education in one of the higher faculties, law, medicine or theology.

Oldest continually operating universities:

Institution: Country: Founded (formal or informal)

University of Bologna: Italy: 1088

Oxford University: United Kingdom: 1167

Cambridge: United Kingdom: 1209

University of Salamanca: Spain: 1218

University of Padua: Italy: 1222


Harvard College is established by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, becoming the first institution of higher learning in the New World. Its initial focus is training young men for the ministry, as it received general support from the Puritan colonies.

Over the next century and a half, dozens of small colleges are founded in the American colonies. Students are male, many of them younger than 17. They’re taught a limited undergraduate curriculum of liberal arts, including Greek and Latin, ancient history, logic, ethics and rhetoric.

Girls are taught to read and write, but can only obtain higher education if there’s room left in boys’ schools.


The College of William & Mary is founded by the Virginia colonial government with the leading Church of England minister as its first president. Young men bound for the ministry often attended for free.


Yale College is established and later moves to New Haven, Connecticut, as the Puritan ministers of the area had grown dissatisfied with what they viewed as liberal theology of Harvard and desired their own school to train orthodox ministers.


Benjamin Franklin and other civic-minded leaders found the Academy of Pennsylvania, an institution that unlike the others isn’t focused on training ministers but instead teaches both the overarching theory of liberal arts and also the practical skills needed to make a living. The institution is later renamed the University of Pennsylvania.


The Medical College of Philadelphia is founded, finally providing a place for formal medical training in the colonies.


The Rev. Eleazar Wheelock establishes Dartmouth College as an institution to educate Native Americans. Today, Dartmouth has more Native alumni (1,000) than the rest of the Ivy League combined.

Elite eastern colleges like those in the Ivy League, by educating primarily the sons of wealthy families and ministers, help endow the Northeastern elite with great power.


George Wythe begins teaching law at William & Mary, making him the new country’s first law professor. While several institutions soon begin offering training in law, attendance remains a rare exception in the profession. It wouldn’t be for more than a century that states begin to require post-graduate instruction for law practitioners.


Presbyterian minister and teacher John Chavis is the first African-American on record as attending an American college or university.


Thomas Jefferson founds the University of Virginia, the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to employ an elective course system allowing students to focus on their own areas of interest.


Oberlin College becomes the first university in the U.S. to accept women and blacks.


With thousands of young men fighting in the Civil War, universities become more willing to admit women, and their ranks in higher education begin to swell. After the war, the doors remain open, whether in coed situations or with newly established women’s colleges, such as the Seven Sisters of the Ivy League.


Higher education remains largely the province of the wealthy. Just 1% of the 18- to 24-year-old population is enrolled in colleges and universities.

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans is illiterate, that rate rising to nearly 80% for blacks.

The newly created Federal Department of Education reports that 9,000 undergraduate degrees are conferred in 1870.


Just 2.8% of women attend college.


College enrollment surges, rising 50% in the first 10 years of the century.


College attendance rates for women rise to 7.6%.

Total cost of attendance for the University of Pennsylvania is just $800 a year, which is about $8,200 in today’s dollars.


Creation and expansion of public colleges and universities helps draw more students, as more than half are enrolled in public institutions rather than private ones.

In science education, the academic focus shifts to fields that directly affect industrial production; chemistry and physics departments grow rapidly.


The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly called the GI Bill, is passed despite being a very controversial piece of legislation. The effect is undeniable: Millions of veterans who would have flooded the job market instead enrolled in higher education. By the expiration of the original bill in 1956, nearly half of the 16 million returning World War II vets had participated in an education or training program.


About 45% of high school graduates attend college.


The Higher Education Act increases federal money for universities, creates scholarships and makes low-interest loans available for college students. Nearly 40 years later, in the 2003-04 school year, 46% of students pay for college with programs the act established.


Average tuition, room and board for public college or university in 1964-65


Enrollment rates of high school graduates hover around 50%, and nearly as many women are enrolled as men.


Average tuition costs begin to rise at a rate that outpaces inflation.


Nearly 60% of high school graduates enroll in college.

College attendance by high school graduates

Year: % of H.S. grads attending college

1960: 45.1%

1965: 50.9%

1970: 51.8%

1975: 50.7%

1980: 49.3%

1985: 57.7%

1990: 59.9%

1995: 61.9%

2000: 63.3%

2005: 68.6%

2010: 68.1%


As college attendance rates increase, so does borrowing to fund education.

Percentage of recent grads with student loans

1992-93: 49%

1999-2000: 64%

2007-08: 66%


Average student loan debt: $29,400

As college costs continue to rise along with enrollment, many students are looking for ways to opt out of the high costs while still securing a degree. For many, that means online education.


25 million students are expected to take classes online, and exclusive enrollment at physical campuses

will plummet.

Enrollment exclusively at physical campuses

2010: 14.4 million

2015: 4.1 million


If trends hold up, there will be more full-time online students than those who attend classes on campus full-time.


Per-student savings realized by Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida through full-time student online enrollment