Book Reviews

Book By: John R. Thelin
Review By: Paul Tontz
Graduate Assistant
Educational Administration & Leadership Ph.D. Program
University of Denver

Yale was the pioneer in conferring some of the first M.D. degrees. Deceptively, the M.D. in this case referred to the buying power of many powerful leaders at the time, 'multum donivat'. "He gave much." This fact is just one of the many fascinating details Thelin reveals in his comprehensive account of the history of American higher education. Thelin takes great care in delineating chapters by connecting each with theme and dates. Appealing to academic advisors are emergent themes that demonstrate the historical evolution of advising.

By 1880-1900, 90% of students opted to end studies after two years (p. 77). This might seem to suggest a clear lack of attention to the issue of retention, when in fact the economic environment between 1860 and 1890 showed that a two-year certificate, not a bachelor's degree, was sufficient for professional pursuits (p. 99).  By the 1920s-1940s, professors were assigned to advise marginal students. Retention rates were low and students were indifferent to faculty advisor meetings; clearly a challenge for an advisor seeking to help students focus on graduation.

By the mid 1970s the origin of formalized advising became evident with the evolution of professional staff positions specifically designed to advise students. Not only did this lighten faculty advising loads, thus allowing more time to conduct research, it responded to changing student needs as a greater percentage of non-traditional, part-time, and returning students filled our campuses. Historically, groundwork for a 'multiple pallet' advisor was laid by the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 that gave institutions flexibility to offer students a variety of courses and by the 'University Building stage' of 1880-1910 that saw higher education progress towards specialization with juniors and seniors opting for "major" fields.

Thelin's theme exploring access issues and the tracking of women within education is of interest to advisors as well. Historically high schools have tracked women away from enrolling in the advanced math and science courses that would allow them to emerge in the sciences and engineering fields. Instead, women were tracked into particular courses that would lead to majors such as education (p. 98). Today a high school or first-year student advisor cognizant of these facts should carefully guide an aspiring female scientist to choose appropriate course work.

Finally, it is of interest to note the evolution of universities hosting a scholarly journal on campus in the era of "Great American Universities". This would account for the present day hosting of NACADA at Kansas State University and The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience at the University of South Carolina.

This book was extremely well written and meticulously documented. Examples and details for each time period clearly elucidate the trends of the time. Ironically, what gave this book strength also provided a certain impedance as it clearly was difficult to fit all the dates and pieces of the puzzle into one coherent framework.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book to others in higher education and particularly to advisors. So often we function without an understanding of purposes underlying our field. Here Thelin provides a historical foundation that not only illuminates how the field of advising emerged within higher education but explores the trends that shape how we deal with students today.


A History of American Higher Education. (2004). Book by John R. Thelin. Review by Paul Tontz. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.  432 pp. (paperback), ISBN # 0801880041.

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