Universal Education: Growth and Function

Education generally refers to a social institution responsible for providing knowledge, skills, values, and norms.

Universal education in the United States grew out of the political and economic needs of a diverse and fledgling nation. Immigrants came from many cultures and religious beliefs; consequently, no common national culture existed. Without a cohesive structure to pass on the democratic values that had brought the country's independence, the new nation risked fragmentation.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and dictionary‐compiler Noah Webster recognized in the 1800s that democracy depended upon a well‐educated, voting populace able to reason and engage in public debate. The nation did not fully realize their vision of education immediately. Many states saw “the nation” as a conglomeration of nation states. This fragmented political atmosphere created an education system with no system at all: Each locality administered its own system with no connection to any other locality. To complicate matters, public schools at that time required tuition, making them inaccessible to the poor, unless the poor were fortunate enough to attend for free. Many religious groups opened parochial schools, but, again, only the rich could afford to attend. Only the wealthiest could afford high school and college. Furthermore, while the political structure may have required an educated voter, the economic structure, which was still based on agriculture, did not require an educated worker.

Horace Mann and tax-supported education

The fact that average citizens could not afford to send their children to school outraged Horace Mann, a Massachusetts educator now called the “father of American education.” To solve this problem, in 1837 he proposed that taxes be used to support schools and that the Massachusetts government establish schools throughout the state. These “common schools” proved such a success that the idea spread rapidly to other states. Mann's idea coincided with a nation about to undergo industrialization and increasing demands from labor unions to educate their children. The Industrial Revolution generated a need for a more specialized, educated work force. It also created more jobs, which brought more immigrants. Political leaders feared that too many competing values would dilute democratic values and undermine stability, so they looked to universal education as a means of Americanizing immigrants into their new country.

As the need for a specialized, educated workforce continued to increase, so did education and its availability. This led to compulsory education; all states had mandates by 1918 that all children must attend school through the eighth grade or age 16. High school was optional, and society considered those with an eighth‐grade education fully educated. As of 1930, less than 20 percent of the population graduated from high school; by 1990 more than 20 percent graduated from college.

The rise of the credential society

The need for a specialized workforce has increased exponentially over the decades. Today, Americans live in a credential society (one that depends upon degrees and diplomas to determine eligibility for work). Employers, predominantly in urban areas, who must draw from a pool of anonymous applicants need a mechanism to sort out who is capable of work and who is not. Those who have completed a college degree have demonstrated responsibility, consistency, and presumably, basic skills. For many positions, companies can build upon the basic college degree with specific job training. Some professions require highly specialized training that employers cannot accommodate, however. Lawyers, physicians, engineers, computer technicians, and, increasingly, mechanics must complete certified programs—often with lengthy internships—to prove their competency.

The demand for credentials has become so great that it is changing the face of higher education. Many students who attend college for a year or two (or even complete a two‐year Associate's Degree), and then enter the workforce in an entry‐level job, may find themselves needing a four‐year degree. They discover that while employers hire those without four‐year degrees, advancement in the company depends upon the credential of a Bachelor's degree. Oftentimes, regardless of their years of experience or competence on the job, employees who have the appropriate credentials receive advancement. Once again, economics changes education. Most employees with families and full‐time employment cannot afford to quit work or work part‐time and attend college.

Many colleges have responded with alternative educational delivery systems for those who are employed full time. For example:

  • At some colleges, students with a minimum number of credits may apply for accelerated degree programs offered in the evenings or on Saturdays.

  • Some colleges allow students to attend courses one night per week for 18 to 24 months and complete all the course work needed for a specific four‐year degree, such as Business Administration.

This demand for credentialed employees combined with new educational opportunities such as internet courses, video classes, and home study has changed the demographics of colleges that offer these programs. In some cases, nontraditional students, or adult learners, comprise as many as half of the students attending a college.