The concept of colleges and universities goes back many centuries. These institutions evolved slowly from monastery schools, which trained a select few for certain professions, notably theology. The terms college and university have become virtually interchangeable in America outside the walls of academia, although originally they designated two very different kinds of institutions.
Two of the most notable early European universities were the University of Bologna in Italy and the University of Paris. The University of Bologna was thought to have been established in the 12th century and the University of Paris was chartered in 1201. These universities were considered to be models after which other European universities were patterned. Oxford University in England was probably established during the 12th century. Oxford served as a model for early American colleges and universities and today is still considered one of the world's leading institutions.
Harvard, the first U.S. college, was established in 1636. Its stated purpose was to train men for the ministry. All of the early colleges were established for religious training. With the growth of state-supported institutions in the early 18th century, the process of freeing the curriculum from ties with the church began. The University of Virginia established the first liberal arts curriculum in 1825, and these innovations were later adopted by many other colleges and universities.
Although the original colleges in the United States were patterned after Oxford University, they later came under the influence of German universities. During the 19th century, more than 9,000 Americans went to Germany to study. The emphasis in German universities was on the scientific method. Most of the people who had studied in Germany returned to the United States to teach in universities, bringing this objective, factual approach to education and to other fields of learning.
In 1833, Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, became the first college founded as a coeducational institution. In 1836, the first women-only college, Wesleyan Female College, was founded in Macon, Georgia.
The junior college movement in the United States has been one of the most rapidly growing educational developments. Junior colleges first came into being just after the turn of the 20th century.
Three major trends in higher education are the continuing popularity of online education, the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses, and the declining popularity of for-profit colleges.
More than 6.3 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2016 term, according to a study conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group. Six percent of all students took at least one distance education class.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) deliver educational content online to any individual who wants to take a course. In 2017, 78 million students around the world took at least one MOOC, according to ClassCentral.com, a search engine that helps people find online courses. Major MOOC providers include Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, Udacity, and many colleges and universities. The most popular subjects for MOOCs in 2017 were technology and business. Social sciences, science, and humanities were also popular.
For-profit colleges tout practical skills training that allow students to enter the workforce directly after college, but a report by the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee detailed aggressive recruiting practices (especially of military veterans and low-income students), high loan default rates, higher-than-average tuition, low retention rates, and inadequate job placement assistance at these schools. In recent years, enrollment has declined at some for-profit schools (and many schools have closed), and the U.S. Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are investigating recruiting and financial aid practices, as well as job-placement claims, at some for-profit schools. In 2010, 2 million students were enrolled at for-profit colleges, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). But in 2017, only slightly more than 1 million students were enrolled in these schools. The DOE reports that only 25.6 percent of students at for-profit colleges graduate in six years. This figure is much lower than for students at nonprofit colleges. Approximately 58.9 percent of students at public nonprofit colleges and universities graduate in six years. The percentage (65.9 percent) is even higher for students at nonprofit private colleges and universities.
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