Shaping Educational Access and Opportunity through State Colleges and Universities

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Shaping Educational Access and Opportunity through State Colleges and Universities

Project Lead

Marc A. VanOverbeke (BIO)

Assistant Professor, Foundations of Education
Northern Illinois University


In the decades following World War II, higher education in the United States expanded dramatically as more people sought access to college as a means to socioeconomic mobility. During this time, state colleges and universities—given their geographic proximity and relatively low cost—were attractive options for students. By 1975, these institutions, many of which had been teachers colleges and agricultural schools, awarded one-third of the nation’s bachelor’s degrees.

However, the historiography on higher education does not fully capture the complex role that these institutions played in expanding educational and economic opportunities. While a number of institutional histories make valuable contributions through explorations of specific state colleges, they do not situate these colleges within the larger educational context. And even though robust studies have advanced our understanding of the historical development of higher education, these studies have focused primarily on elite research universities or higher education in general.

Under the direction of Marc VanOverbeke, this study examines the history of these crucial but overlooked colleges and universities by focusing on their missions, the students they enrolled, and the education they provided between 1945 and 1975. It uses these institutions to explore the relationship between education and economic mobility and to consider the shifting expectations that Americans have for education.  It addresses questions such as

  • What does the growth and development of state colleges and universities tell us about public expectations for education?
  • What did these institutions argue was their purpose and mission in the American democracy?
  • Did these institutions attempt to replicate their elite peers, or did they challenge common assumptions about higher education?
  • How did these institutions contribute to economic mobility?
  • In what ways did these institutions and the education they provided affect the socioeconomic class identity and belonging of their students?

Since these institutions also educated the majority of the nation’s schoolteachers, they forged vital connections with the secondary schools that employed their students and granted higher education access to future generations of students. Consequently, this study also explores the relationships state colleges and universities developed with secondary schools and considers how these relationships shaped both educational levels and influenced college access. This portion of the study builds on research VanOverbeke conducted for his book, The Standardization of American Schooling: Linking Secondary and Higher Education, 1870-1910 (Palgrave Macmillan 2008).

VanOverbeke is a WISCAPE faculty affiliate and assistant professor of Educational Foundations in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology, and Foundations at Northern Illinois University. He will draw upon influential federal reports; annual reports, proceedings, and records from national associations and commissions; and primary sources and original documents from various university archives in completing this study. WISCAPE has provided him with summer salary funding to aid in this process.

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