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Success story of higher education in the USA

The level of education in the first American colleges was rather low, and their founders were more inspired not by the ideas of education, but by the potential profit. Now higher education in the United States is considered one of the best in the world, the country is leading in the number of scientific discoveries and research conducted. Stan Lab University School of Education Professor David Labari in his article for Aeon explains how the American educational system evolved and why this experience cannot be copied. "Theories and Practices»Publish the translation.

Фото: Depositphotos

In the XIX century, everyone who came to the United States, the local education system seemed a mockery. It was even difficult to call it a system - rather, just a random set of institutions scattered across rural areas that call themselves colleges. It would seem that a structure that can not boast of either decent funding, or outstanding academic success, or the performance of its social functions, while being based in small towns along the border, is doomed to failure. But by the second half of the twentieth century, she led the global market for higher education. It turned out that it actively enhances its condition, generates more scientific knowledge, attracts more talented students and teachers, and nurtures more Nobel laureates than systems of other countries. US universities lead the world in rankings.

How did this amazing metamorphosis happen? The fact is that those features of the system that seemed to be flaws in the XIX century, in the twentieth century turned into advantages. The modest state funding, dependence on the number of students, the atmosphere of populism and the madness on football made her so autonomous that she managed to bypass all her competitors and get to the top.

The educational system was born under difficult circumstances at the dawn of US history, when the state was weak, the market was strong, and the Church was divided. In the absence of tangible support from the clergy and the state (which ensured the prosperity of the first universities in medieval Europe), the first American colleges were forced to rely mainly on the local elite and students who paid for their studies. The government issued them a certificate of registration, but this only made their work legal. The license did not involve funding.

In the XIX century, the main reason for opening colleges was the pursuit of profit, and not the spread of higher education. For a long time, the primary source of wealth remained land, but in a country where there was much more free territory than buyers, the main difficulty for speculators was to convince people to buy a plot from them, and not from some of its many competitors (for example, George Washington was about 50 thousands of acres, and he spent many years on unsuccessful attempts to sell them). The situation became even more hopeless in the middle of the XIX century, when the authorities began to distribute allotments to the settlers. To survive in such conditions, it was necessary to show that the land can be not only an agricultural site in a dusty village, but also a prestigious real estate in a promising cultural center. And nothing was associated with culture as strongly as college. Speculators "donated" land for the construction of colleges, obtained a license and then sold the land around with great profit (just like today's developers who equip the golf course and then take the exorbitant price for the houses that are close by).

Of course, getting permission to open a college and create a really working organization is two different things. Typically, speculators tried to make the college religious orientation: it gave some advantages. First, it helped divide the market. Presbyterian attracted Presbyterian College more than, for example, Methodist College in the nearest town. Secondly, the issue with personnel was solved: until the end of the XIX century, almost all presidents and most of the teachers of American colleges were priests. The founders of educational organizations were satisfied with this option for two reasons: they were fairly well educated and could work for a small fee. The third advantage was that the Church could be persuaded to make occasional small donations.

Often, faith and profit considerations were combined in one person, giving rise to a recognizable American character - the cleric-speculator. For example, priest Josiah Bushnell Grinnell left the Congregational Church, which he himself had founded in Washington, DC, to build a new city in the west for speculative investments. In 1854, he settled in Iowa, called the city Grinnell, received permission to open a college, and began selling land at 1,62 dollars per acre. Instead of creating a completely new organization, he convinced Iowa College to move from Davenport to Grinnell and rename itself to Grinnell College.

This process of college development explains a lot about the structure of the American higher education system in the 19th century. Less than a quarter of the colleges were located along the east coast, where most Americans lived. More than half of the establishments were in the Midwest or South-West - in sparsely populated border areas. In a competitive American environment, no single denomination occupied a dominant position; everyone was on his own, so everyone wanted to set their flag in new territories earlier than others. Land speculation and interfaith rivalry led to the fact that by the year 1880 there were 37 colleges in Ohio, while in France there were only 16 colleges.

It is surprising a huge number of similar newly-made colleges. In the 1790 year, at the beginning of the first decade of the existence of a new republic, there were already 19 organizations in the USA, which were called colleges or universities. In the first 30 years, this number increased gradually and reached 50 by 1830, and then the pace accelerated significantly. By 1850, they were already 250, ten years later 563, and in 1880 there were 811 similar institutions. The growth in the number of colleges substantially outpaced population growth: while in 1790, there were five colleges per million people, in 1880, this figure rose to 16. At that time, there were more colleges in the US working in 5 than in the whole of Europe. It was the most saturated system of higher education the world has ever seen.

Of course, as Europeans who came to America liked to emphasize, most of these colleges could only be called institutions of higher education. To begin with, they were very small. In 1880, the average college could boast 131 students and 10 teachers and issued all 17 diplomas per year. Most educational organizations were located far from cultural centers. Teachers were more often preachers than specialists, and the student could be anyone willing to pay tuition for a diploma of dubious value. Most graduates eventually took holy orders or chose other professions for which the college was not required.

Several east coast institutions (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, College of William and Mary) attracted students from wealthy and influential families and served as educational sites for future leaders. But closer to the border, there was no recognized elite with which colleges would like to associate, and with regard to social differences, they too could offer very little. Due to the fact that almost every town had its own college, organizations had to fight for students, which means that the tuition fee remained modest. Therefore, the colleges had a beggarly budget, they were content with poor equipment and low salaries, it was difficult for them to attract and retain students and teachers, and they had to constantly collect donations. Accordingly, the majority of students belonged to the middle class rather than to the upper class, and they came mainly for the sake of experience, and not for the sake of knowledge. The scholarship students were the most serious students.

Harvard Photo: Depositphotos

The unenviable position of colleges in the 19th century was also indicated by how difficult it was to distinguish them from high school and various academies, which were also in abundance. Students often chose between high school and college instead of looking at them as successive stages. As a result, children of about the same age studied in high school and colleges.

By 1880, the American higher education system was unusually large and geographically dispersed, with decentralized governance and an unprecedented level of institutional complexity. It may seem strange that the motley collection of 800 colleges and universities in general can be called a system. The system involves a plan and a form of management that allows you to ensure that everything works in accordance with this plan. Indeed, this is exactly what higher education systems look like in most countries where they are controlled and adjusted by ministries. But not in the USA.

The American higher education system has not grown out of the plan, and no body is in charge of it. She just happened. Nevertheless, it is a system that has a clear structure and a clear set of rules, defining the actions of organizations and individuals within it. In this sense, it more closely resembles the market economy system that emerged due to the aggregate of individual decisions than the political system that is governed by the constitution. Here it is more likely to present the spontaneous growth of cities, rather than an artificially created community. Their story is not a planned construction, but an evolutionary process. Market systems simply happen, but this does not prevent us from understanding how this happened and how they work.

The weak points of the educational system were absolutely obvious. Most colleges were not created to develop higher education; there remained a rather modest level of study. They had neither developed infrastructure, nor permanent sources of financing. There were too many of them, so that some individuals could receive recognition, and there was no mechanism to put one above the others. Unlike in Europe, there were no universities in the USA that were open with the approval of the national government or the official Church — only a marginal meeting of public and private organizations located on the outskirts of civilization. Sorry sight.

Take, for example, Middlebury College: it was opened by congregationalists in 1800, and today is one of the best American colleges of the liberal arts and is part of the so-called Minor Ivy League. But in 1840, when a new college president arrived on campus (Presbyterian priest Benjamin Labari, the great-great-grandfather of the author. - Ed.), he saw an institution that was struggling for survival, and for his 25-year tenure the situation did not improve much. In letters to the Board of Trustees, he lists typical problems that troubled the president of a small college during his time. So, he was hired to pay 1200 dollars a year (about 32 thousands of dollars by today's standards), but he found that the trustees are not able to pay this amount. Labari Sr. immediately became puzzled by the question of financing and held the first of eight charitable fund-raising campaigns for the college, and he himself made a contribution to 1000 dollars and agitated a few institute employees to follow his example.

Problems with money are the most global topic in the letters of the president (difficulties with hiring teachers and paying for their work; a house mortgaged to compensate for his unpaid wages, a constant search for donations), but he also complained about the inevitable problems that arise when trying to offer a full program in college with a small and insufficiently qualified teaching staff.

Yale Photo: Depositphotos

In general, the American college system in the middle of the XIX century had some perspectives and no results. Nevertheless, the prospects were extraordinary. The hidden advantage of the system was that it contained almost all the necessary elements for the future increase in the number of applicants and the growing needs of students. There was a suitable infrastructure: land, classes, libraries, classrooms for teachers, administration buildings and everything else. However, colleges were not concentrated in several populated centers, but scattered throughout the country. Teachers and supervisors, too, were already in their places with training programs, courses and a license that allowed them to issue diplomas. There was an established management structure and an established process of financial support for organizations from various sources, as well as assistance from the local community and the clergy. The system lacked only students.

Another source of strength was that this motley collection of unremarkable for the most part colleges and universities survived the harsh competition in the course of natural selection.

Successful colleges entrenched in isolated cities across the country. They positioned themselves as institutions that train local leaders and serve as cultural centers for the population. The name of the college, as a rule, coincided with the name of the city. Educational organizations, which reached the second half of the XIX century, found themselves in an advantageous position due to the growing demand of students, the emergence of new bases for admission to college, new sources of funding.

American colleges preserved the aura of populism. Since they were located in small towns scattered throughout the United States and were forced to compete with their rivals in a similar situation, they were more concerned about survival than learning standards. As a result, the middle class was more likely to be associated with the American system, not the highest strata of society. The poor did not send their children to college, but ordinary middle-class families could afford it. Admission was simple, academic requirements were modest, and pay was feasible. Thanks to this, the college was based on a solid national foundation, which, for the most part, saved it from Oxitridge-style elitism. The college was part of the local community and denomination, a popular place, a source of civic pride and a business card that demonstrated the urban level of culture to the world. To feel close to college, citizens did not even need to have loved ones who study there. Such popular support turned out to be extremely important when admission to universities began to grow at a space velocity.

This system was popular among consumers, but did not turn American colleges into centers of intellectual achievement and universal recognition. The situation began to change in 1880-x, when the German model of the research institute broke into the American educational scene. She suggested that the university is a place that produces advanced scientific research and provides the highest level of training for the intellectual elite. The new model has added scientific credibility to the American system, which it obviously lacked. For the first time the system could rightfully declare that it provides the highest level of education. At the same time, the number of people willing to attend college has increased significantly, that is, the problem of chronic student shortage has also been resolved.

But America did not fully adopt the German educational model. Instead, it was adapted to suit local circumstances. The research university was an addition, not a substitute. Since there was no such funding in the USA, postgraduate education and scientific research could exist only at a modest level and only in relation to the colleges that worked under the undergraduate program. The system needed financial assistance from numerous students who paid for their studies and carried out per capita contributions to the fund of state institutions. She also needed political support and public legitimacy, which were sought at the expense of the mass and practicality of American colleges.

For the sake of survival, the system had to struggle to make students happy, that is, to organize a wide variety of public entertainment, including brotherhoods, sisterhoods and, of course, football, and also to make sure that the academic program was not too complicated. The idea was to weave college into the lives of students. They began to identify themselves with him, thus the likelihood was growing that even in adulthood they would continue to wear clothes of “branded” colors, would come to alumni meetings, send children to study at their alma mater and make generous donations.

In the 19th century, the weak support of the Church and the state made American colleges turn into a developing higher education system that was economical, flexible, autonomous, sensitive to consumer interests, relatively financially independent and completely decentralized. These modest undertakings gave rise to a system with characteristics that allowed it to become the leading education system in the world.

The American education system has evolved from the object of ridicule into the subject of universal envy. Unfortunately, since the system developed spontaneously, there is no model that other countries could copy. This is an accident that occurred under unique circumstances: when the state was weak, the market was strong, and the Church was divided, when there was too much land and too few buyers, and when educational standards were very low. And you can only wish good luck to those who dare to recreate it in the XXI century.

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