Formal Education has Evolved from Elitist in the 1800s to Universal and Bloated Today

Education has undergone many changes over the years.  For centuries formal education was available only for the wealthy, with most people spending limited time in school.  The modern system of public schooling is, in fact, a rather recent invention.  Up through the 19th century education for the masses was limited to necessary skill building.  Studies of arts, humanities, foreign languages, and any advanced subjects were almost exclusively relegated to universities that were only accessible to the elite.

In the late 19th century nations like Britain and the United States, the world’s industrial superpowers, began outlawing child labor.  Legalized child labor convinced many parents, usually struggling with desperate poverty, to forego sending their children to school and instead send them to labor in factories and mines.  As laws against child labor increased it became apparent that local governments needed to provide greater opportunities for formal daytime education for youth.  Children of all socioeconomic classes needed places to go during the day while their parents worked.  The 20th century, therefore, saw the evolution of comprehensive public schooling.

After courts outlawed child labor they began to enforce greater amounts of public schooling, eventually making formal education mandatory up through age 16.  In some states students cannot drop out of school before turning 18, while in other states they can drop out of school at age 16 with parental consent.  Society’s increasing reliance on technology, influenced by our evolution from an industrial economy to a service economy, has driven the need for more formal education.

Early in the 20th century youth needed relatively low levels of formal education to secure gainful employment.  As factory labor and industrial jobs declined in prevalence, replaced by jobs that required more interpersonal, technological, and critical thinking skills, governments began increasing the required levels of formal education to ensure that employers had access to plenty of qualified applicants.  Up through the 1930s the goal of most American teenagers was to complete high school.  During the early 20th century higher education was often only available to people of considerable financial means.

As World War II raged, president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress decided to reward the millions of servicemen fighting for their country by passing the GI Bill, which provided government assistance to attend college.  After the war millions of demobilized soldiers were able to attend colleges and universities at low cost, developing knowledge and building skills.  This drastic increase in America’s collective level of formal education is often credited with the economic boom of the 1950s, leading to near-universal acclaim of the merits of higher education.  While much of post-high school formal education in the decades after World War II focused on learning a trade at a trade school or community college, increasing economic prosperity during the latter half of the 20th century made it possible for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to attend large universities.

Today many school districts try to encourage all public high school graduates to pursue higher education, either at a local community college or at a 4-year university.  State governments and the federal government widely encourage this practice through the use of scholarships and grants, such as the federal Pell grants, and generous funding of public colleges and universities.  The prevailing notion in the early 21st century is that students should seek the maximum amount of formal education attainable to help improve the U.S. economy through increased production efficiency, with more highly educated workers being seen as more productive and reliable than their less-educated colleagues. 

The widespread acclaim given to the concept of universal higher education is not without critics, especially in recent years as the Great Recession of 2008-09, and its lingering aftermath, limited the amount of funding state government could devote to higher education.  While a college degree was seen as a “golden ticket” to a good job up through the end of the 20th century, the increasing number of college graduates has created a glut of college-educated job applicants and lowered demand for such individuals.  As unemployment rates for recent college graduates increase many people are beginning to question the wisdom of trying to making college education universal.