History of Learning Assistance Programs in the 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 Preparatory Academies

In 1830, New York University created an early prototype of an academic prepara­tory academy. It provided instruction in mathematics, physical science, philoso­phy, and English literature (Dempsey, 1985). The focus, however, was acquiring basic academic content knowledge, not the cognitive learning strategies that are often prerequisite for mastery of new academic material. These academies were a necessary bridge for many college aspirants as a result of the lack of formal sec­ondary education for many. The U.S. education movement started from the top down. First, colleges and universities were established and then public elemen­tary and secondary schools were developed. Some colleges functioned essentially as both high schools and rigorous colleges. The academic preparatory academies supported the rising academic rigor of postsecondary institutions and provided an access conduit for those seeking a college education. The academies expanded with surprising speed in a short time. By 1894, 40 percent of first-year college students had enrolled in college preparatory courses (Ignash, 1997).

Academic Preparatory Deparments Become Part of the College Curriculum:  Late 1800s

Since the beginning, tutorial programs were the most common form of aca­demic enrichment and support at most prestigious institutions such as Har­vard and Yale. Many college administrators responded to the high number of students academically underprepared by creating a special academic depart­ment that was essential to meet their academic needs. In less selective institu­tions, the number of underprepared students outnumbered those not requiring additional support. For example, the University of Wisconsin in 1865 could place only forty-one of 331 admitted students in “regular” graduation credit courses. The majority of the new students admitted were restricted to remedial courses (Shedd, 1932). Quality of primary and secondary education was uneven or missing in most of the United States. Most colleges provided instruction in basic skills of spelling, writing, geography, and mathematics, as they were the only venue for such instruction (Brier, 1984). Instruction in basic content areas lengthened the undergraduate bachelor’s academic degree to six years or more (Casazza and Silverman, 1996).

In 1849, the University of Wisconsin established the first modern learning assistance program. Instead of offering remedial courses through an external academic preparatory academy, Wisconsin created an academic department for these courses and hired a separate faculty to teach them. The Department of Preparatory Studies instructed students through remedial courses in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Because of an insufficient number of tutors to meet the academic needs of most admitted students, the institution quickly responded by establishing the new academic department. Of the 331 admit­ted students, 290 enrolled in one or more remedial courses in the preparatory studies department. These courses were similar to those offered at a public high school (Brubacher and Rudy, 1976). Many institutions across the United States implemented the Wisconsin model of learning assistance (Brier, 1984). The department persisted until 1880. Continuous internal political battles among the department, campus administrators, and the rest of the university faculty served as a catalyst for its demise. Faculty members from outside the depart­ment demanded its elimination because of the fear of stigma for the university. College administrators tried to appease critics through strategies such as renam­ing the department. New campus administrators finally closed the department after its short and contentious history (Curti and Carstensen, 1949).

Academic preparatory departments emerged at more than 80 percent of all postsecondary institutions (Canfield, 1889). These departments bridged the gap between inadequate academic preparation of high school graduates and college-level curricular expectations (Clemont, 1899). Review of college admission documents indicated that the farther west the college was located, the lower the entrance requirements for the institution as a result of insuffi­cient preparation in high school. As the public school movement spread from the Northeast farther south and west, college entrance requirements of the institutions eventually rose. After a half century of use, however, remedial col­lege credit courses were entrenched in most colleges.