An Overview of American Higher Education


This overview of postsecondary education in the United States reviews the dramatic changes over the past fifty years in the students who go to college, the institutions that produce higher education, and the ways it is financed. The article, by Sandy Baum, Charles Kurose, and Michael McPherson, creates the context for the articles that follow on timely issues facing the higher education community and policy makers.

The authors begin by observing that even the meaning of college has changed. The term that once referred primarily to a four-year period of academic study now applies to virtually any postsecondary study—academic or occupational, public or private, two-year or four-year—that can result in a certificate or degree. They survey the factors underlying the expansion of postsecondary school enrollments; the substantial increases in female, minority, disadvantaged, and older students; the development of public community colleges; and the rise of for-profit colleges. They discuss the changing ways in which federal and state governments help students and schools defray the costs of higher education as well as more recent budget tensions that are now reducing state support to public colleges. And they review the forces that have contributed to the costs of producing higher education and thus rising tuitions.

The authors also cite evidence on broad measures of college persistence and outcomes, including low completion rates at community and for-profit colleges, the increasing need for remedial education for poorly prepared high school students, and a growing gap between the earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree and those with less education. They disagree with critics who say that investments in higher education, particularly for students at the margin, no longer pay off. A sustained investment in effective education at all levels is vital to the nation’s future, they argue. But they caution that the American public no longer seems willing to pay more for more students to get more education. They therefore urge the higher education community to make every effort to find innovations, including creative uses of information technology, that can hold down costs while producing quality education.