Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century

By Christopher P. Loss (Princeton University Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Gary Lowe

“While citizens have always been trained to serve the state, not until the twentieth century did the state take an active interest in, and provide financial support for, training democratic citizenship.”  

Between Citizens and the State examines the role of higher education in American politics from World War I to the present. The author argues that political relationships built in the early 20th century resulted in universities serving as proxies for implementing federal policies to a nation distrustful of big government. Because colleges were local or regional institutions rather than extensions of the federal government, their roles expanded to include intermediary agency capacities. As a result, the educational missions of colleges are entwined with federal goals of producing better citizens for the democracy.

Political relationships built in the early 20th century resulted in universities serving as proxies for implementing federal policies to a nation distrustful of big government.

The book explores several topics in detail that influence the role of higher education in American society. Some of the major themes include:

The growth of new psychological theories after World War I to boost student retention and graduation rates. Colleges began searching for ways to help students adapt to the demands of college life; the use of newly created “intelligence” tests was part of the student selection process.

The role of colleges as de facto parents (in loco parentis). The rise of the impersonal bureaucratic university supplanted the almost parent-child type relationship that existed between students and colleges throughout much of the early 20th century.

Higher education institutions as proxy agencies in the administration of New Deal policies. Federal officials used higher education (especially land-grant universities) as part of their efforts to end the Depression. The Roosevelt administration pushed federal policies into areas such as agriculture and opened the doors for additional joint research projects between universities and the federal government.

The use of education by the military as a method of producing better soldiers. The Armed Services used information from the social sciences and psychology fields to assist people in their adjustments to life in the military. The Army Research Branch concluded that higher levels of education resulted in fewer desertions and mental breakdowns.

Higher education as a tool in the fight against the spread of Communism. National leaders promoted programs such as study abroad to create enriching student educational experiences and also highlighted the advantages of living in a Western culture. Higher education made greater outreach efforts toward adults in an attempt to raise the nation’s political awareness during the Cold War.

The social revolution of the 1960s began the diversification of colleges. The Higher Education Authorization Act of 1965 and the political rise of under-represented groups (especially African-Americans and women) forced higher education organizations to offer courses and programs that recognized the varied backgrounds of their student populations.

Between Citizens and the State is well-written and effectively highlights the complex relationships between federal policy goals, the implementation of those policies by higher education organizations, and the outcomes of those efforts. The author does an excellent job of weaving details about politics and policy with the resulting impact on higher education and American society from World War I through the 1960s. The book also examines major issues that affected colleges post-1970 (e.g., Pell Grants, affirmative action, college finances), but the topics are not covered with the same level of detail.

Institutional research professionals who have interest in the history of the politics that contributed to the growth of higher education in the United States will enjoy reading Between Citizens and the State. Readers will note that many of the problems higher education faces today (e.g., low student retention rates, poor academic preparation, student apathy about current events, financial concerns, students who are more interested in the social aspects of college life than in studying) were also problems in the 1920s and 1950s.

Gary Lowe is Principal Analyst in the Office of Institutional Planning and Analysis at University of California, Merced.




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