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Pursuing an education after high school has never been easier than it is today. Though in recent years the costs of attending college or university have gone up, the U.S. is still seeing a healthy number of students enrolling each year.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2017, 20.4 million people began attending a college or university, an increase of 5.1 million since the fall of 2000. Of those new students, 11.5 million are female, constituting the majority of those enrolled.

Though this is good news, it wasn’t always so easy for people to achieve a higher education. Whereas now the main obstacles in the way of attending a prestigious institution are financial or merit-based, those living in the 18th century had an entirely different experience.


The Classroom

Modern students have an incredible variety of options when it comes to where and how they will attend their classes. Students can now pursue their education at smaller satellite schools that offer the same quality of education that they would get on a traditional campus. In the last 20 years, there has been a boom in online education, as well; students can now take individual online courses needed for their chosen field of study, or they can complete a degree entirely online. This variety can help students who have to juggle work and family gain an edge in their education


In contrast, classrooms in the 18th century were a much different animal. Centuries before the invention of the overhead projector, students relied solely on textbooks. Modern students have the luxury of a meticulously curated library, and access to thousands of peer-reviewed articles to research —  while only the most well-established schools of the 18th century could maintain a library of even modest size.


Modern lecture halls have a comfortable format. Today, the professor sits at the front facing rows of students, as is able to effectively see and interact with all of them. The classrooms of the 18th century often consisted of nothing more than a structure built out of logs, with a dirt floor and paper windows coated with lard as opposed to actual glass. Wooden pegs would be driven into the logs, then boards were placed upon the pegs resulting in de facto desks all along the borders of the room, while the teacher sat in the center of the room.


Who Attended?

Today a culturally and ethnically diverse classroom is the norm. Educators see the benefit of having people from all walks of life bring their unique perspectives to the table. Class, gender, creed, ethnicity, and even learning disabilities are no longer grounds for disqualification from pursuing a higher education.


Although there is some pushback against diversity in schools in the modern era, things were much more difficult in the early days of the U.S. education system. Colleges and universities were originally available only to priests, as religion and education were closely tied together. There were a handful of learning institutions for women, however, they did not focus on the traditional education one might expect, opting instead to educate women in domestic affairs or, at best, languages and music. Though women were taught to read, they were not given the chance to learn how to write.


Slaves and Native Americans also had little access to education. While there were some schools run by Quakers that allowed and encouraged slaves and Native Americans to be educated, the majority was not in line with this progressive line of thought. For the bulk of U.S. history, the best chance for someone to receive an education was tied to whether or not they were Caucasian, male, and wealthy.


Benefits of a Higher Education

Obtaining a degree has a few inherent benefits: wider opportunities for gainful employment, a well-rounded education, and a chance to explore new ideas that one might not have been exposed to otherwise. However, a college education does not guarantee that you will immediately find a place in the workforce. Higher education serves as a foundation for individuals to build on, no matter what your field of study. Attending college builds communication, writing and research skills that will help an individual succeed if they continue to hone those skills.

While education in the 1700s also offered a lot of the same advantages, the main benefit of attending a college or university was gaining entrance into the esoteric world of the elite. At the time, people were either born into money and received the appropriate education to help them retain that wealth. In the best case scenario, a benefactor would send an individual to acquire that same knowledge if they lacked to funds. The other option was to either do manual labor or apprentice under someone to learn how to do skilled labor. 

Obtaining an education in the 18th century also meant that you made the connections that would set you up for success through your classmates or professors. This, however, is not a practice that has died out — joining a fraternity or social club at a university greatly increases your chances of finding work post-graduation. What is different, is that there are more options available to the modern graduate when it comes to networking. The internet offers a multitude of options to build your professional network from websites like LinkedIn and even Facebook. With these tools, it is no longer nearly as important that someone maintain relationships they developed in college because these types of networking sites are based solely on merit. The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” still applies today, but knowing people is infinitely easier than it was in the 1700s.



Higher education has always been important, but it hasn’t always been accessible. Now students have more options than ever in their pursuit of knowledge, and inclusivity is at an all-time high. Modern technologies have improved both efficiency in the classroom and comfortability for students, allowing for a level of engagement unheard of in the 18th century. 

While obtaining an education provided unique advantages in the 18th century, many of those advantages carried over to the 21st century. Developing and maintaining professional relationships, developing critical thinking skills, and greater opportunity for employment have always been things you can gain from seeking higher education. These core benefits, whether living in the 18th century or the 21st century, will always be valuable to those who pursue their education.


About Author

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.