Image of Aitken's statue "The Future"
Highsmith, C. M., photographer. Sculptor Robert I. Aitken’s statue, “The Future,”

Recently, Josh Kim in his Inside Higher Education blog, Learning Innovation, suggested that any discussion of the future of higher education should be informed by an understanding of the past. The solution, according to Kim, is reading John R. Thelin’s seminal A History of American Higher Education, 3rd edition.

As a historian I have long ascribed to the adage “What is past is prologue,” which is carved into the base of Robert Aitken’s statue Future located at the northeast corner of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. But Kim’s admonition nudged me to revisit the latest edition of Thelin’s updated work and read it through the lens of what his history of American higher education can tell us about the post-pandemic higher education world.

A few general thoughts on A History of Higher Education

I agree with Kim’s assessment that there are two large oversights in Thelin’s work.

First, there is little on the role that teaching and learning play in the history of American higher education save conversations about the tensions between formal academic curriculum and the extracurricular learning of students. The work focuses almost exclusively on the structural aspects of American higher education with special attention paid to the changing roles of presidents and boards with the occasional mention of faculty. For a work that purports to chronicle higher education there is very little education going on.

Second, and most disappointingly, the work is virtually silent on the role of technology in American higher education save a cursory conversation about MOOCs. This is especially problematic and disappointing since Thelin spends time discussing the changing demographics of students and the need for institutions to expand how they think about the “typical” undergraduate student, including their needs and their experience of college. One can’t help but wonder how the rise of digital learning during the 2000s impacted not only the students enrolled in higher education but the missions of colleges and universities as many strive to expand student access to postsecondary education for a broader array of students.

None of this is to detract from Thelin’s work, however. It remains eminently readable and engaging as well as superbly researched. And although the work is a broad survey, what it misses in depth is more than made up by the breadth of Thelin’s analysis.

What is “past is prologue”

What most struck me reading Thelin this time around are the longevity of higher education’s retention problem and the tensions around the purpose of a college degree. Retention and success are such dominate themes in our current conversations around higher education that it is easy to believe they have always been concerns and the focus of higher education reform. Thelin, however, paints a very different picture as he lays out the ways in which, as early as the colonial period, higher education did not adhere to a four-year model. As Thelin writes, “One peculiar characteristic of the colonial colleges in their first decades is that there was little emphasis on completing degrees” (Thelin, 2019, p. 66). He goes on to suggest that by the end of the 19th century, “The completion of a bachelor’s degree was hardly a universal accomplishment, nor was it expected to be so” (Thelin, 2019, p. 163) and that even during higher education’s “golden era” of the early 20th century renowned institutions such as Harvard, Amherst, and William and Mary routinely experienced high dropout rates and low levels of bachelor’s degree completion (Thelin, 2019, p.264). Our focus on college completion is, historically, a rather recent phenomena of the late 20th century.

Photo by Mike Peel (
“What is Past is Prologue” statue, Washington, D.C.

Debates over the purpose of college and the resulting economic tensions also struck me as prescient in this reading of Thelin. Chronicling the writings of Francis Wayland, a nineteenth century president of Brown University, Thelin explores criticisms that nineteenth century American colleges were “out of touch with the demands of an energetic, industrial society” (Thelin, 2019, p. 152).

These debates over the purpose of college continue and intensify into the 1940s and 1950s as debates over who should access higher education intensify. Nowhere is this more evident than in Thelin’s discussion of the 1947 Truman Commission Report, “Higher Education for American Democracy,” which eloquently advocates for the “ultimate goal [of] an educational system in which at no level—high school, college, graduate school, or professional school—will a qualified individual in any part of the country encounter an insuperable economic barrier to the attainment of the kind of education suited to his aptitudes and interests” (Thelin, 2014, p.225).

These calls culminate in the 1971 Newman Report on Higher Education’s admonition, “We must enlarge our concepts of who can be a student, and when, and what a college is. We need many alternate paths to an education” (Thelin, 2014, p. 267).

What Thelin’s History can tell us about post-pandemic higher education

If we agree with the adage “What is past is prologue,” then what lessons can we take away from Thelin’s comprehensive history of American higher education? I was struck by two significant lessons.

  • Higher education has been remarkably resilient.

Higher education has faced significant challenges from the colonial period to the present. Institutions have struggled to survive economically, have grappled with who they serve and how they serve those students, and have long been asked to justify their existence. Despite all of these crises, American higher education has been highly resilient as long as it never lost sight of its educational mission.

  • We can’t afford to lose sight of educational mission and the needs of students.

The extent to which American higher education has stumbled has often corresponded with losing focus on its fundamental mission of educating undergraduate students.

The extent to which American higher education has stumbled has often corresponded with losing focus on its fundamental mission of educating undergraduate students.

As Thelin observed about the higher education crisis of the 1970s, “The problem was not that the center [of higher education] had failed, but rather that the modern American university had no center at all” (Thelin, 2018, p. 436). The 1971 Newman Report was even blunter in its assessment of higher education’s mission: “It is not enough to improve and expand the present system. The needs of society and the diversity of its students now entering college require a fresh look at what ‘going to college’ means” (Thelin, 2014, p.266).

The pandemic has exposed higher education’s fault lines that we must all grapple with—access without equity, challenges around student success, and the changing nature of who our students are. These are all profound challenges. However, the good news is that Thelin paints a picture of higher education as a resilient, vital institution capable of meeting these challenges. As he concludes, “higher education remains vital, its remarkable past worthy of connecting with its complex present and its promising future in American life” (Thelin, 2019, 592).

van davis headshot

Van Davis
Policy and Planning Consultant, WCET
Principal, Foghlam Consulting


Thelin, J. R. (2019). A history of American higher education, 3rd edition. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thelin, J.R. (Ed.) (2014). Essential documents in the history of American higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.


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