The History of Public Universities in the U.S.

America's public universities date back to the founding of the country. The history of public universities shows their pivotal role in society's future.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published June 23, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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The History of Public Universities in the U.S.
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Today, public colleges and universities educate around 75% of college students. But that hasn't always been the case. Until the growth of land grant colleges in the late 19th century, private colleges dominated higher education. Public universities grew out of a public commitment to educating society.

In the country's early days, many Founding Fathers advocated for public schools and fought for public colleges. It took decades for the promise of public higher education to truly open its doors to everyone. And today's public universities are more diverse than private universities.

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The history of public universities shows the pivotal role they play in U.S. society. What's more, the challenges facing public institutions today are a warning sign for the future of higher education.

The History of Public Education in the U.S.

Universities have been around for centuries. But the idea of a public university is much more recent. The first medieval universities, dating back to the 11th-12th centuries, expected students to shoulder the cost of their education. Many sought out patrons to fund their learning.

While governments rarely funded universities directly, they did support learners. Law students at the University of Bologna went on strike until the city promised affordable rent and lower taxes for students.

The idea of publicly funded universities grew out of an Enlightenment-era commitment to the general good. And the Founding Fathers were key proponents of public higher education.

The First American Public University

In 1795, Hinton James walked from Wilmington to Chapel Hill to attend college. It was a 170-mile journey. When James arrived, he became the first student at an American public university.

Janes was also the only student for two weeks until around 20 classmates joined him at the University of North Carolina.

The Oldest Public Universities

The oldest American public universities had their roots in the earliest years of the United States. In 1785, Georgia chartered the University of Georgia. In 1789, North Carolina followed suit with its state university system. And South Carolina established a public college system in 1801.

George Washington was a major proponent of public higher education. He encouraged Congress to create a "national university" to make education accessible to more students.

America had a fair share of private colleges at the time. Harvard and the College of William and Mary date back to the 17th century — though William and Mary became a publicly funded institution in 1906.

The Purpose of Public Universities

The newly founded public universities would serve a public good — creating an educated citizenry. In the U.S., the public university system evolved in a decentralized way. Rather than a national university, as Washington proposed, states funded their own university systems.

In 1800, only around 25 colleges existed in the U.S. They enrolled around 2,000 students total and employed under 100 faculty. Additionally, most private colleges had religious roots.

Public universities promised a secular education. After serving as president, Thomas Jefferson dedicated himself to the cause of public higher education. He designed and funded the campus at the University of Virginia, which opened in 1825.

The Rise of Public Universities

In the mid-1800s, public universities still made up a small fraction of educational institutions. But that was about to change. The 1862 Morrill Act would rework public higher education by encouraging states to create their own systems.

The Morrill Act offered a huge carrot to states. The federal government would hand over land to states, which could sell the property to fund public universities. These so-called "land grant schools" became the foundations of the public college systems in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and a number of other states.

Before 1859, nearly 300 colleges and universities were established in the U.S. And only 29 were public colleges. Between 1860-1900, more than 80 new public universities began operating.

Making Public Universities More Inclusive

Private higher education still largely served elite families. Public universities would democratize higher education and make it accessible to more Americans. Yet many colleges barred women and people of color.

The follow-up Morrill Act of 1890 banned race discrimination in public college admission. The act spurred many states to create public HBCUs.

In spite of the founding mission that public universities would be open to all students, many primarily enrolled white, male students until the 20th century. Advocates pushed for laws to make higher education more diverse. Public universities benefitted from admitting students of all backgrounds.

Public Universities in the 21st Century

Today, there are 1,625 public colleges in the U.S. And while public colleges make up around 40% of higher education institutions, they enroll around 75% of undergraduates.

Many of the top-ranked universities in the world are American public universities. The best public universities include UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, and UNC Chapel Hill.

Challenges Facing Public Universities

Public universities offer an outstanding return on investment — they typically cost a fraction of the price of private institutions for in-state residents. However, state funding for public institutions has dropped dramatically in the past few decades. There's a major connection between declining state funding and rising tuition rates.

In 2018, tuition dollars passed state appropriations as the primary revenue source for public institutions. As public funding drops, tuition rates have risen. As a result, public universities' tuition rates have increased faster than private ones.

While tuition rates grew 144% at private institutions from 2002-2022, out-of-state tuition at public universities grew 171%, and in-state tuition shot up 211%. Declining public investments in higher education and an increasing budgetary reliance on student tuition pose a major challenge for the future of public universities.

The Future of Public Universities

Public universities remain one of the most affordable routes to a college degree. Many of the best public universities are also world-class research universities.

But what will the future look like for public universities? In the 19th century, many states invested substantially in public higher education. And that paid off — graduates from public universities contributed to economic growth and civic life.

A bright future for public universities requires strong public investment. Otherwise, public universities will follow the path of private institutions, where some elite colleges have more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%.

As John Adams wrote in 1785 — the same year Georgia became the first state to charter a public university — “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it."

The future of public universities — and of society as a whole — depends on whether we still believe Adams's sentiment.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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