How the 20th Century Changed Higher Education

The early years of the 20th century saw a massive focus on elementary education, although a similar focus on high school and postsecondary education was lacking. Many reforms in elementary education occurred in the 20th century. In postsecondary education, a number of colleges began to shift the focus away from pure academics toward the practical needs of students in the working world.

In 1921, Antioch College in Ohio instituted a curriculum requiring students to divide time equally between classroom-based traditional learning and activity-based on-the-job learning. In 1932, Bennington College for Women began staffing its faculty with artists, writers, and other professionals in the creative field, rather than only people from the core academics. The objective was not only to bring in a practice-oriented focus in academics but also to encourage students to exercise their judgment and freely express their creativity.

In the early 20th century, William Rainer Harper, president of the University of Chicago, first proposed the idea of community colleges or “people’s college.” John Grant and J. Stanley Grant were also instrumental in this movement. The founding of the American Association for Junior Colleges solidified this establishment and ensured state support.

As higher education expanded rapidly between the 1950s and the 1970s, there was unprecedented growth in the number of colleges as well as wide variety in curriculum. Different colleges had different views about curriculum, which was generally in reaction to demands of specific groups. Soon a plethora of reviews, standards, and subjects differentiated colleges. Management and governance of the curriculum had become very difficult, and the multiplicity of programs and financial difficulties resulted in a decline in quality that the 21st century is still in the process of sorting out.

To learn more about modern education, where it has come from, and where it’s going, check out our other articles on the history of American schooling and its status today.

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