The two most important developments in American higher education in the 20th century were, arguably, contradictory. First, building on the foundation laid by the Morrill Act of 1862, which gave federal land to states to create colleges that taught “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” we created the world’s first mass higher-education system. When the Carnegie Corporation of New York was founded, in 1911, “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding,” fewer than 3 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 were students in institutions of higher education. About 350,000 young Americans were enrolled in fewer than 1,000 institutions of higher education. Some hundred years later, more than 35 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled, and about two-thirds of high-school graduates immediately go on to get more education. The United States has 20 million students in 4,500 institutions of higher education.
Second, building on the foundation laid by the establishment of The Johns Hopkins University, in 1876, American higher education has embraced the idea of the research university as its most cherished aspiration. Today there are about 300 American universities that confer doctoral degrees, far more than envisioned by the original proselytizers for importing the research-university model from Germany to the United States. And that number understates the importance of the model, because the core members of the faculty and senior administration at hundreds more institutions hold doctoral degrees and operate within the academic tenure system that lies at the heart of the way research universities are run. <Read more.>