Published: 4-11-2011, 14:48

University extension movement - American Education

A 19thcentury shift in the goals of major universities from educating the wealthy elite to servicing society at large by offering access to education to any and all who wished to avail themselves of it. The movement began at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England in the 1850s and 1860s, after critics attacked the publicly supported institutions for their self-imposed isolation from the rest of society. The institutional church and the SOCIAL SETTLEMENT were two responses to such criticism, but a third response came in 1867, when scholars at Cambridge began offering courses to local groups of working men and women, including lawyers, ministers and teachers.

The informal offerings soon developed into a formal series of lectures, syllabi, homework assignments, discussions and examinations that university authorities eventually organized into an adult-education curriculum leading to university credits. By 1875, Cambridge was enrolling more than 7,000 students in extension courses. Oxford followed suit and by 1887 was enrolling about 13,000 students. The movement immediately spread to the United States, where the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching, in Philadelphia, organized similar programs at various local schools, colleges and universities. The University of the State of New York quickly emulated the Philadelphia example, and the Association of College Alumnae (later, the American Association of University Women) organized similar programs in Indiana.

University extension did not become a formal university program in the United States until William Rainey Harper and John D. Rockefeller drew up plans to open the University of Chicago in 1890. Believing that the university was the “keeper” of democracy and had a responsibility to disseminate knowledge to the widest possible audience, Harper included an aggressive, autonomous extension division, with its own faculty, into his initial plans for the new university. The division was to be organized into six departments offering, respectively, lecture study, classroom work, correspondence study, books and publications, examinations and teacher training for the extension division. Although it never materialized as Harper had planned, it nevertheless served as the basic for a sizable number of correspondence courses and became a model for other universities, such as the UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN and the University of Kansas, to use in establishing important extension programs in agriculture for local farmers. The University of Wisconsin so expanded the Harper model as to become the world’s preeminent university in terms of outreach to the general public and service to the community. By the beginning of World War I, the university extension program had become an integral part of American higher education, with scores of colleges and universities offering correspondence courses, lecture courses, short courses, club study, training institutes, community forums and library service programs. Columbia University had 2,000 adult students attending its extension courses for credit. Pennsylvania State University had 4,800 students enrolled in correspondence courses leading to B.A. degrees. The University of Michigan boasted an enrollment of 70,000 men and women at more than 300 lectures in its extension program.

In the 1990s, the university extension movement expanded in logarithmic proportions, with the development of DISTANCE-LEARNING programs that allowed millions of Americans to use home computers and the Internet to access university classrooms at more than 5,000 institutions of higher education.