History of Learning Assistance in the Early to Mid 1880s

As a historian, I have been interested in the history of learning assistance and developmental education.  Listening to the rhetoric of today as some argue for the elimination of developmental-level courses, a listener might think that such courses are a recent creation.  A careful review of the historical record reveals they have been embedded as part of American higher education since the start.  Below is the first of three parts of an examination of the 1800s.  These are excerpts from my 2010 book published by Jossey-Bass, "Access at the crossroads:  Learning assistance in higher education."

Academic preparation academies emerged during the mid-1800s. These new postsecondary education units provided education equivalent to public high schools, which were not common in most of the United States at the time. Col­leges recognized that tutoring as it was being practiced was insufficient to serve the needs of the expanding college student population. Often academies oper­ated in the local community rather than on the college campus. In addition to tutoring, the academies enrolled students in remedial classes in reading, writ­ing, and mathematics. This phase was a short one, as the expansion of public education across the United States replaced the need for many of the new academies. The composition of the student body changed little during this phase. Most students were white males from privileged families. Because most students were involved with learning assistance and from the upper class, lit­tle stigma was attached, as it was perceived as a natural part of the education process, a process that was available to so few at the time.

Impact of Jacksonian Democracy

Some historians identified several elements of Jacksonian democracy as affecting U.S. society in the mid-1800s. Whites benefited from the exten­sion of voting privileges, middle-class workers and small shop owners received financial support, and education was extended to more of the pop­ulation. One application of Jacksonian democracy was expansion of post­secondary education through common schools, public education, and an expanded curriculum for more people in the middle class rather than only the most privileged.

During this time, expansion of postsecondary education was essential to support development of the economic middle class of merchants, tradesman, engineers, agriculturalists, and scientists needed to meet the needs of the grow­ing nation and to support its economic development. This intersection of interests among political progressives and economic forces indirectly supported learning assistance as a means to ensure higher productivity of colleges to grad­uate sufficient numbers of skilled workers and leaders.

With poor or nonexistent secondary education and even inadequate pri­mary education in some cases, however, many college aspirants could barely read and write (Craig, 1997). The number of those who tutored and the num­ber who received tutorial assistance were nearly identical to the number of teaching faculty and their enrolled students (Brier, 1984), documenting the extensive involvement of learning assistance in postsecondary education. Since the early years, debate has continued about how to meet the needs of admitted college students. Providing tutoring for students was insufficient to meet their needs during this time. More services would emerge.

One option for meeting students’ academic preparation needs was to pro­vide remedial and developmental courses in the institution’s curriculum. Proponents of elitism in postsecondary education prevailed temporarily against that option, however. The fixed college curriculum prescribed the same slate of classical courses for all students, without regard to individual needs for development of improved learning strategies and mastery of fundamental aca­demic content material in mathematics and writing. Thus, academic prepara­tory academies continued to house remedial and developmental courses.