Higher education in the United States: a historical, descriptive, and spatial analysis

Open Access
Adams, Jennifer Ann
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 08, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Roger Michael Downs, Dissertation Advisor
  • Roger Michael Downs, Committee Chair
  • Rodney Allen Erickson, Committee Member
  • Stephen Augustus Matthews, Committee Member
  • Irwin Feller, Committee Member
  • Geography
  • Higher education
  • Geography of education
  • Spatial analysis
This dissertation represents the first historical, descriptive, and spatial analysis of higher education in the United States. The principal contribution of the dissertation is a database which allows for multiple ways to visualize and investigate spatial patterns of institutions of higher education (hereafter, IHE). The lack of a geo-referenced database of the nation’s IHE previously inhibited the spatial analysis of the U.S. higher education system as a whole. The secondary contribution of the dissertation is identifying a series of factors that influenced the spatial patterns of IHE. Educational, federal, state, and demographic factors have shaped the geography of IHE and enrollment in the U.S. Literature reviews trace the history of U.S. higher education from the founding of Harvard in 1636 through to the twenty-first century. Maps of the historical spread of IHE set the review of literatures within a spatial context. Periods of structural change in U.S. higher education between 1939 and 2007 are identified. Traditional and spatial statistical analyses for IHE and their enrollments were conducted using the dissertation database. Results are presented across multiple spatial scales, including the nation, state, and ZIP Code™ levels. A notable finding of the dissertation is that the spatial core of “traditional” IHE has remained in the Northeast. Western and southern states could not “catch up” with the Northeast in terms of the concentration of either four-year or private, non-profit IHE relative to the college-aged population. However, western states compensated for the lack of private, non-profit IHE by establishing public and two-year IHE. Scholars have examined the post-WWII expansion of U.S. higher education in great detail, yet the analysis of higher education change from a geographic perspective previously has been limited. This dissertation fills a recognized research void with two contributions: the creation of a spatial database of IHE and the preliminary interpretation of spatial patterns of IHE in light of educational, federal, state, and demographic factors. A third contribution, in the longer run, will be making the database available to other researchers and policy makers.