Harvard Educational Review
  1. American Higher Education Since World War II

    A History

    Roger L. Geiger

    Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 400 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

    Roger Geiger’s American Higher Education Since World War II is the second and final volume in Geiger’s ambitious historical study of American colleges from their founding to the present. Geiger expertly condenses a large literature into eight chapters, at a pace of roughly two chapters per decade. Those familiar with the history of higher education will recognize the shape of the narrative that Geiger presents. Enrollments boomed in the immediate post–World War II period due in large part to the GI Bill, at the same time as funding for scientific research skyrocketed with the intensifying of the Cold War. The expansion of public higher education, desegregation, the civil rights movement, and coeducation then changed the demographics of American academia in the 1960s, and newly minted PhDs could easily find tenure-track positions in the burgeoning sector. The 1970s brought an economic downturn and a rising distrust of academics from both the Right and Left, resulting in a contraction of funding and status for higher education. The 1980s deepened the competition between colleges, leading to an “arms race” in selectivity. It also marked a turning point in the “culture wars,” with conservative politicians framing colleges as the battleground for the minds of American youth. The 1980s and 1990s recentered the importance of research in American universities, further encouraging privatization efforts. In the past twenty years, student debt has become a national crisis, public trust for higher education has deteriorated, and predatory colleges with low graduation rates further obfuscate the value of a postsecondary degree. This book is an important contribution to the field not because it challenges the historical work on American higher education since World War II, but because it draws so much of the literature on this period together in exceptional detail.

    Unlike more introductory texts to US colleges, American Higher Education Since World War II attempts to cover every major movement and trend during this period. The first chapter, for example, covers the GI Bill, McCarthyism, the Commission on Higher Education, the rise of general education, the debate about who should attend college, federal support for higher education, and the Cold War’s influence on higher education. Each of these topics could easily be the subject of an entire chapter, or even a separate book. Geiger’s breadth of focus means that each section is dense, with entire movements and subfields condensed into just a few pages. However, some themes are given more attention than others. For example, shifts in research funding, an essential part of this history, is a topic that Geiger returns to throughout the book. In contrast, the impact of desegregation and racism, also critical to histories of higher education, is covered primarily in twelve pages. These twelve pages include twenty-six unique book citations; this is an invaluable resource for both researchers and students, but it leaves the reader to do additional research on how racism shaped American higher education. Because so much of the value of this book lies in its extensive footnotes, it would be a formidable resource to a researcher or student who wants to use this text as a starting point for learning the existing literature on an issue. However, the pace of the writing may make it difficult to jump in without a baseline familiarity with a given topic.

    While Geiger includes works that examine this period from multiple perspectives, in some cases they are mentioned only in passing instead of receiving as much detail as necessary. This is especially true of research that centers people of color and other minority groups (the exceptions being his sections on desegregation, student protests, and the culture wars). While the movements led by people of color that Geiger does include are certainly important moments in this history, people of color are present throughout the history of American higher education, and including their experiences, perspectives, and contributions throughout the book would have made it an even more useful resource for those interested in colleges and universities in the United States.

    Additionally, the volume covers the transformation of higher education during this period in great detail, which means that some of the sections—especially those on shifts in the demographics of the student body (e.g., overall number of students, changes in the proportion of women and people of color), the boom in the number of higher education institutions, and increases in public and private funding—can be challenging to parse. This is a common issue in historical writing writ large, with descriptive statistics left in the text instead of presented through tables and charts. Without these visualizations, it can be difficult to understand changes over time and to return to a section to find the relevant data again later.

    American Higher Education Since WWII is of tremendous value to educators who need to point students toward texts on a subject, but it would be challenging for students to navigate the book on their own. For those who are already acquainted with the most prominent histories of US universities and colleges, this work will deepen their knowledge. For those who are less familiar with American higher education, though, this book might be a difficult place to start. There are many historical studies of this period, but none is quite like this work. It is a testament to the tremendous contribution that Geiger has made to the field. While some voices are underrepresented, and thus makes the volume incomplete, American Higher Education Since World War II is perhaps the most authoritative work on this topic and will likely be an essential text for years to come.

    Lucian Bessmer
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