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Education, Concerns in Higher Education

social rewards, affirmative action policies, prestigious colleges, admissions tests, educational issues

Throughout the 20th century, Americans have attended schools to obtain the economic and social rewards that come with highly technical or skilled work and advanced degrees. However, as the United States became more diverse, people debated how to include different groups, such as women and minorities, into higher education. Blacks have historically been excluded from many white institutions, or were made to feel unwelcome. Since the 19th century, a number of black colleges have existed to compensate for this broad social bias, including federally chartered and funded Howard University. In the early 20th century, when Jews and other Eastern Europeans began to apply to universities, some of the most prestigious colleges imposed quotas limiting their numbers.

Americans tried various means to eliminate the most egregious forms of discrimination. In the early part of the century, "objective" admissions tests were introduced to counteract the bias in admissions. Some educators now view admissions tests such as the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), originally created to simplify admissions testing for prestigious private schools, as disadvantageous to women and minorities. Critics of the SAT believed the test did not adequately account for differences in social and economic background. Whenever something as subjective as ability or merit is evaluated, and when the rewards are potentially great, people hotly debate the best means to fairly evaluate these criteria.

Until the middle of the 20th century, most educational issues in the United States were handled locally. After World War II, however, the federal government began to assume a new obligation to assure equality in educational opportunity, and this issue began to affect college admissions standards. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the government increased its role in questions relating to how all Americans could best secure equal access to education.

Schools had problems providing equal opportunities for all because quality, costs, and admissions criteria varied greatly. To deal with these problems, the federal government introduced the policy of affirmative action in education in the early 1970s. Affirmative action required that colleges and universities take race, ethnicity, and gender into account in admissions to provide extra consideration to those who have historically faced discrimination. It was intended to assure that Americans of all backgrounds have an opportunity to train for professions in fields such as medicine, law, education, and business administration.

Affirmative action became a general social commitment during the last quarter of the 20th century. In education, it meant that universities and colleges gave extra advantages and opportunities to blacks, Native Americans, women, and other groups that were generally underrepresented at the highest levels of business and in other professions. Affirmative action also included financial assistance to members of minorities who could not otherwise afford to attend colleges and universities. Affirmative action has allowed many minority members to achieve new prominence and success.

At the end of the 20th century, the policy of affirmative action was criticized as unfair to those who were denied admission in order to admit those in designated group categories. Some considered affirmative action policies a form of reverse discrimination, some believed that special policies were no longer necessary, and others believed that only some groups should qualify (such as African Americans because of the nation’s long history of slavery and segregation). The issue became a matter of serious discussion and is one of the most highly charged topics in education today. In the 1990s three states—Texas, California, and Washington—eliminated affirmative action in their state university admissions policies.

Several other issues have become troubling to higher education. Because tuition costs have risen to very high levels, many smaller private colleges and universities are struggling to attract students. Many students and their parents choose state universities where costs are much lower. The decline in federal research funds has also caused financial difficulties to many universities. Many well-educated students, including those with doctoral degrees, have found it difficult to find and keep permanent academic jobs, as schools seek to lower costs by hiring part-time and temporary faculty. As a result, despite its great strengths and its history of great variety, the expense of American higher education may mean serious changes in the future.

Education is fundamental to American culture in more ways than providing literacy and job skills. Educational institutions are the setting where scholars interpret and pass on the meaning of the American experience. They analyze what America is as a society by interpreting the nation’s past and defining objectives for the future. That information eventually forms the basis for what children learn from teachers, textbooks, and curricula. Thus, the work of educational institutions is far more important than even job training, although this is usually foremost in people’s minds.

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