Academic Support Programs at Elite Colleges Since the Beginning

One of my aggravations is the way the popular press and too often research publications claim that academic assistance programs, learning assistance, and developmental education were recently created.  The story goes they were created to serve the "new students" attending college.  That phrase is code language for first-generation, poor, and students of color.  The actual history of U.S. higher education actually records that academic support programs have always been with us.  Following is an excerpt from my book, Access at the Crossroads.  Enjoy.

Precollegiate academic assistance for most students at Harvard and Yale con­sisted of private tutors who prepared them for college entrance examinations in Greek and Latin and provided evidence of good moral character that was also required for admission. In the mid-1700s, Yale required proficiency in arithmetic in addition to the already stringent requirements. Other postsec­ondary institutions soon followed. Students who did not attend Latin gram­mar schools had few options for entering college. One option for gaining admittance to Yale was for a minister to place students in his home for private tutoring until they were ready for the college entrance exam (Cowie, 1936). This option was similar to the dame schools in England.

Once admitted to Harvard, most students continued to receive tutoring, as assigned readings and textbooks were written in Latin. Many college pro­fessors delivered lectures in the same language. Even in the most privileged families, verbal and written competency in Latin was unusual. Therefore, Harvard was the first postsecondary institution in the United States to require remedial studies for most of its first-year class of students (Boylan and White, 1987). After admission to prestigious colleges such as Harvard and Yale, stu­dents entered a cohort. Each week they met with the same tutor for group ses­sions. The tutors’ primary role was reading aloud the lesson material and then conducting a recitation session to detect whether students had correctly memorized the text. This practice failed to meet the needs for the most gifted and the struggling students, as it focused on the average student’s mastery level of the academic content material. The literature contains no evidence of the efficacy of this crude form of academic assistance.

Economics intervened in academic admission policies during the late 1700s. Because of the social norm of considering only white male students from highly prestigious families, most postsecondary institutions found it in their financial interest to admit students less prepared academically but possessing resources to pay college tuition and thus generate more revenue. By the time of the American Revolution, institutions began to differentiate themselves from one another by academic preparation levels of incoming college students and their official mission statements. Amherst and Williams admitted students unable to attend Harvard and Yale as a result of lower academic preparation or inadequate finances (Casazza and Silverman, 1996). Students experienced unofficial segregation policies and procedures. Stereotypes of perceived aca­demic inabilities and discrimination against females and students of color fueled this discrimination. Nathaniel Hawthorne described the students at Williams as “a rough, brown featured, schoolmaster-looking, half-bumpkin, half-scholar, in black, ill-cut broadcloth” (Rudolph, 1956, p. 47). These assumptions, based on ethnic and class prejudices, reflected social norms and prejudices shared by many in society, including key college policymakers. Admission criteria and procedures influenced by these stereotypes contributed to differentiation and stratification among postsecondary institutions.