There are more than 4,600 colleges and universities in the U.S. They are spread across the nation, and many are in small towns. Where did they come from? There was a boom in college founding in the 19th century, mainly of small private institutions along the frontier. As Americans moved west, more schools were planted, and by 1880, while France has 16 colleges, Ohio by itself had 37. They weren't regulated at all, and accepted anyone who would pay the tuition.
The rationale for starting a college in the 19th century usually had less to do with promoting higher learning than with pursuing profit. For most of US history, the primary source of wealth was land, but in a country with a lot more land than buyers, the challenge for speculators was how to convince people to buy their land rather than one of the many other available options. (George Washington, for instance, accumulated some 50,000 acres in the western territories, and spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to monetise his holdings.) The situation became even more desperate in the mid-19th century, when the federal government started giving away land to homesteaders. One answer to this problem was to show that the land was not just another plot in a dusty agricultural village but prime real estate in an emerging cultural centre. And nothing said culture like a college. Speculators would ‘donate’ land for a college, gain a state charter, and then sell the land around it at a premium, much like developers today who build a golf course and then charge a high price for the houses that front on to it.
Of course, chartering a college is not the same as actually creating a functioning institution. So speculators typically sought to affiliate their emergent college with a religious denomination, which offered several advantages. One was that it segmented the market. A Presbyterian college would be more attractive to Presbyterian consumers than the Methodist college in the next town. Another was staffing. Until the late-19th century, nearly all presidents and most faculty at US colleges were clergymen, who were particularly attractive to college founders for two reasons. They were reasonably well-educated, and they were willing to work cheap. A third advantage was that the church just might be induced to contribute a little money from time to time to support its struggling offspring.
Today, American schools account for 52 of the top 100 universities in the world, and even small colleges draw students from around the world. How did that happen? An article at Aeon explains how the flexibility born of the system's ragged beginnings helped make the American higher education business what it is today. -via Digg