The High Fives: Colonial Era of American Higher Education

We are excited to launch a new series today that will take readers through a brief summary of the history of American higher education.

Several of Geneva’s first year MAHE students recently completed the course: Historical Foundations of Higher Education. This course utilized The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System by A. M. Cohen and C. B. Kisker as the primary text. Cohen and Kisker cover six historical eras of American higher education, and students compiled the top five dates, people and players, contextual and historical events, economic data points, and miscellaneous events for each era. 

In the hopes that this may become a resource for the higher education community, Rehoboth Journal will publish a new set of “High Fives” each week for each of Cohen and Kisker’s historical eras of American higher education.

We begin this week is the High Five for the Colonial Era of higher education. Enjoy!

The Colonial Era

History American Higher Education 


1636: University-trained men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard College, the first colonial college. Colleges formed in the other colonies often followed the Harvard pattern in many respects [religious interest, primary goal to educate youth in preparation for public service in the civil state, mission of civilizing the indigenous, and the like] (21).

1650-1700: The 18th Century Enlightenment eventually influenced thinking in Europe. Though slow to affect the universities, the models and ideas coming from across the continent certainly impacted American colonial colleges. The importance of reason and human nature began to supplant biblical studies by the end of the Colonial Era (p. 20-21).

1740: College of Philadelphia [University of Pennsylvania] is established as the first non-sectarian university in the colonies (p. 25). The other eight colonial colleges were formed by a governing church body, and the institutions’ church connections were apparent.

1746: Harvard endowed the first Professorship of Divinity. Most colonial colleges’ faculty was comprised of tutors and a college president, all of which taught a wide variety of subjects. As more colleges began to distinguish professorships, college faculty began to think in terms of academic careers in the form of a more permanent faculty (p. 31).

1756: The College of Philadelphia laid out a three-year curriculum that was a bit different from the existing colonial colleges. Students studied more arithmetic, science, natural science, and chemistry; they also studied innovative ideas in navigation, surveying, civil history, law and government, and trade and commerce. More than any other colonial institution it may have presaged the institution that epitomized the American College (p. 37).

History of American Higher Education

People and Players

Benjamin Franklin: Franklin wrote about the purposes of education, and how an institution should be modeled. Later, his emphasis on public service, acculturation of the young, and the civil community would become part of the University of Pennsylvania (p. 24).

Lay Boards: Three of the colonial colleges established a dual governing structure in which the lay board of trustees shared power with an internal group of college fellows. In the other six colleges, the lay board had authority over all functions (p. 48).

College President: The American college president was the unquestioned authority. He was the liaison between members of the college and the governing board. The president was also responsible for all college operations (p. 48).

Professors and Tutors: Most faculty were tutors, typically recent graduates awaiting positions as ministers. They received little pay and taught all subjects under the college president (p. 30). The eventual establishment of professorship in the various disciplines revealed how curriculum was splitting and breaking away from the influence of the church and adherence to the classics. There was also a breaking away from a prescribed curriculum, as well as an adding of scientific studies (p. 39).

Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson was an alumnus and member of the board of visitors at the College of William and Mary. He tried to reorganize the college by abolishing the professorships in divinity and adding medicine, natural history, and modern languages to the curriculum. Jefferson’s plan even included electives (p. 38).

Contextual and historical events

Contextual & Historical Events

Religion was a major influence in the colonial colleges. Some colleges had a mission to “Christianize” and civilize the indigenous. The pattern of curriculum and faculty-student relations stemming from church-related institutions was most prominent; the combination of church influence blended with lay control became the pattern (p. 20, 22).

The mid-18th century Enlightenment impacted thinking throughout the Colonial Era; the importance of reason and human nature began to supplant biblical studies. Ethics became an important area of study. Though textbooks didn’t appear until later in the era, they reflected ideas of the Enlightenment and were written in English (p. 38, 40).

There was an ambitious sense of optimism where sons could expect to have more wealth than their fathers; a young man could become a professional even if his father was a farmer. This sense of ambition and optimism fueled the establishment of the colonial colleges and the growth of the settlements (p. 17).

Originally, there were few restrictions on entering the professions; apprenticeships had been the main source of access to the professions. When colleges were established, this mindset continued with an absence of any restraining political force. There was no centralized government to establish standards (p. 17-18, 23).

The colonial institutions reflected the social organization within the colonies: a major religion or a combination of sects, reliance on a legislative body for at least initial if not continuing control through appointing trustees, and funding to be derived from a combination of donations or legislative appropriations, supplemented by whatever tuition could be collected from students. (p. 47-48)

Economic Data Points

Economic Data Points

Few families could afford to send their children to college; most likely they depended on their sons for help on the farm or with the family business. The notion of work-study developed from students being unable to pay tuition (p. 26, 51). Fees, room, and board ranged from ten to fifty pounds per year. A lower trade working family earned about fifty pounds per year, but a prosperous attorney could earn two to three hundred pounds per year (p. 51).

Sometimes, students were exempt from admissions requirements because the colonial colleges needed students and could not afford to stick to their written admission statements too strictly (p. 29).

Colleges depended largely on voluntary contributions and on combinations of funds from various sources. Sponsoring church groups, subscribers or private donors, and governmental bodies all contributed to the colonial colleges. Substantial donations were difficult to attain; colleges also needed student fees to survive (p. 49, 51). In the later part of the eighteenth century, more than half of Harvard’s annual income was provided by the government (p. 50).

Colonies assisted most of the institutions in some way; some through donations of land, some by granting permission for the colleges to operate lotteries (p. 50).

Some monies from taxes were awarded to institutions, such as money from a tax on tobacco being granted to William and Mary. Even students were granted immunity from taxes at William and Mary and Yale. This tax exemption helped to make the colleges more attractive to the young people they was trying to enroll (p. 50).



Nine Colonial Colleges – original name, current name, year established, Religious affiliation:
1. Harvard college – Harvard University – 1636 – Puritan
2. College of William and Mary – 1693 – Anglican
3. Yale College – Yale University – 1701 – Congregationalist
4. College of Philadelphia – University of Pennsylvania – 1740 – Nonsectarian
5. College of New Jersey – Princeton University – 1746 – Presbyterian
6. King’s College – Columbia University – 1754 – Anglican
7. College of Rhode Island – Brown University – 1765 – Dutch Reformed
8. Queen’s College – Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey – 1766 – Dutch Reformed
9. Dartmouth College – 1769 – Congregationalist

Colonial colleges’ curriculum was restricted in many ways: There were not many students because many youth learned outside of the college system. The purpose of college at the time was for preserving what was already known; colleges did not promote the purpose of advancing knowledge. Not many occupations required specific training; so many youth did not attend college. Colleges were also dominated by religious organizations who limited the scope of knowledge (p. 33).

The colonial colleges prepared learned men, using a liberal arts curriculum that was considered the best preparation for people who would take their place in any walk of society. They learned far more than how to perform a single job (p. 53). A major portion of the curriculum in colonial colleges was derived from the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, and music. The liberal arts were then adapted for religious purposes and modified to add various forms of philosophy and ethics (p. 35).

During the colonial era, admission requirements further limited who could attend. Many colonial colleges required applicants to be able to speak Latin and understand Greek grammar. The only real change in admissions requirements came in 1745 when Yale added an understanding of arithmetic (p. 28).

College provided: “an avenue of mobility for young men, prepared ministers, and assisted in the formation and maintenance of an elite group of public servants at a time when there was no specialized training for government, teaching, librarianship, or medical practice” (p. 55).

Compiled by: Jenna Bieber, Hannah Bonzo, and Hannah Brenton

Cohen, A. M. & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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