Before the Rankings: Learning About the History of Our Colleges

Henry Ford said, "History is more or less bunk." Most adults, not to mention high school students, probably agree. Getting excited about the Civil War, for example, or the industrial revolution can be a challenge, particularly for teenagers.

Since American history is generally a requirement for graduation why not take the opportunity to make this standard eleventh or twelfth grade class more "relevant" by presenting it, at least in part, as the story of higher education?

My students were surprised to discover that among the many consequences of the Civil War (1861-1865) were the founding and expansion of hundreds of colleges and universities.

With Southern Democrats no longer in Congress following secession, Republicans easily passed the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862. Government land was granted to each state to be sold, and the moneys used to create endowments for the maintenance of colleges that would teach, among other things, agriculture and engineering in order to "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes."

The bill provided federal aid for a new, more inclusive vision of publicly supported higher education. Penn State, founded in 1855, became Pennsylvania's land-grant college in 1863. Rutgers followed for New Jersey in 1864, and the University of Delaware was designated a land-grant college in 1867.

A host of black colleges emerged in the South after the war. Howard University, in Washington, began in 1866, like so many of its white counterparts, as a place to train clergymen but rapidly evolved into a university with a medical school and a law school. Freed from slavery by the war, a Georgian, William Sanders Scarborough, went on to become a classicist and later president of Wilberforce College in Ohio, one of the few historically black colleges founded before the war. More than a hundred so-called HBCUs continue to operate today, though many have struggled since desegregation, and a few are now majority white.

Former officers on both sides of the conflict joined college faculties. After the surrender, Robert E. Lee became president of Virginia's Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee.

The federal budget leapt from 2 percent to 13 percent of gross domestic product during the war and fueled tremendous growth in Northern industry. Philadelphia textile mills supplied blankets and uniforms to the Union Army and, by the turn of the century, the city was the largest textile center in the country. A group of mill owners established the Philadelphia Textile School in 1884. It became a college in 1941, and was renamed Philadelphia University in 1999.

The second wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the New York shipping and railroad magnate, was a Southerner, and she persuaded her husband to take an interest in the former Confederacy. Vanderbilt paid for the building of Vanderbilt University (1873) in Nashville.

The most famous historically black women's college, Spelman (1881) in Atlanta, was funded in part by John D. Rockefeller, the oil baron, who built his first refinery during the war. Spelman was named in honor of Rockefeller's wife and her parents, who had been active in the abolitionist movement.

Today, the United States is home to roughly 4,500 degree-granting institutions, including the Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn. Ford would probably not be amused to know that HFCC offers a history major.

Telling the stories of these institutions to our college-bound kids might help them look beyond rankings and name recognition and take a broader view of their college options. And they'd learn some American history along the way.