College and University Leadership

A History of Higher Education in America: CSU and the Democratization of Education

CSU history of higher education in america

In honor of Independence Day and the anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862, we continue our series on the history of higher education in America. Previously, we examined the impact education had on the solidification of the early American republic. Now we take a look at how land grant institutions, particularly Colorado State University, have contributed to the democratization of education in our nation.

Initially a privilege of the nation’s elite, American higher education has become progressively inclusive with the passage of time. With measures like the Morrill Act of 1862 (under which the government provided federal land to the states in order to establish land-grant colleges), the civil rights movement, and today’s technological advancement, higher education has gradually reached a broader range of students. As a result, Colorado State University and other land-grant institutions have collectively earned the title “democracy’s colleges.”

CSU (originally known as Agricultural College of Colorado) was founded in 1870 with the goal of providing relevant education to ordinary Americans. Throughout its history it has both reflected and contributed to the democratization of American higher education. This notion is demonstrated across campus and beyond by institutions like the Lory Student Center (LSC), which provides a gathering place “offering vibrant social, educational, recreational, and cultural activities that stimulate discussion and debate.”[1], and the online classroom, which opens CSU’s community to the world.

The first class of Agricultural College of Colorado graduated three students, one female—Libby Coy (Lawrence).[2] While the very first graduating class welcomed women, African Americans faced intolerance within higher education that defined much of the nation’s politics. In 1890, Congress passed the second Morrill Act: explicitly granting African Americans rights to federal education funds and admittance to “land-grant” institutions. In 1892, the Agricultural College admitted its first African American student, Grafton St. Clair Norman.[3]

Decades later, and victorious after World War II, the United States became a global leader—and the American higher education system followed suit. Taking seriously the opportunity and responsibility to produce high-achieving students capable of combating global issues, Congress passed the 1944 GI Bill granting returning veterans free college tuition, among other benefits. The GI Bill further democratized higher education by introducing non-traditional students, often from lower socio-economic classes. Consequently, Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College’s (renamed in 1944) student body became increasingly diverse with the addition of international students and war veterans—foreshadowing the mission of the soon-to-be-built LSC.

Students in the 1960s and 1970s, discovering their democratic voice, actively protested perceived injustice. Colorado State University (named such in 1957) was no different and saw widespread student activism.[4] In October 1968, CSU students, led by student body president Doug Phelps, held a “Beer-In” at the LSC. Approximately half of the student body voted in favor of legalizing the sale and consumption of beer on campus and chose to demonstrate by consuming beer in the recently constructed LSC. Many students understood, on a deeper level, that the protest was in fact a step toward greater student autonomy.[5]

In 1961, persistently working toward CSU’s goal of democratization and increased global presence, Civil Engineering Professor Maurice Albertson established one of the first Peace Corps branches at CSU. Like the LSC, the Peace Corps sought to advance collaboration and cultural understanding. Ever since, the CSU branch of the Peace Corps has expanded worldwide.[6]

Community is a cherished value of CSU. In the 1980s, the AIDS virus alienated Americans, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s the nation overcame this divide. The AIDS Memorial Quilt continues to memorialize individuals nationwide and over twenty-five countries by touring the nation. In 1996, when last displayed in entirety in Washington, D.C., the quilt included 94,000 names and measured 1.3 million square feet. In 1991 and 2012 the LSC hosted the quilt and invited CSU and local community members to contribute their own panels to honor loved ones affected by AIDS.[7] In memorializing AIDS victims, the quilt brings awareness, healing, and community to CSU, the nation, and the world.

Like the LSC, CSU’s online and distance programs have carried forth the university’s progress in the democratization of higher education. The primary mission of these programs is to offer distance education to people who cannot, or choose not to, come to campus. Growing exponentially, CSU’s online education population includes more than 11,000 students worldwide.[8]

Beginning years ago as a small, rural college in northern Colorado, CSU’s campus has grown both physically and metaphorically, and has blossomed into an inclusive institution that provides educational opportunities throughout our globalized world. Whether one takes classes on campus or online, we can all be Rams with a proud history.

Though we have made immense strides in the history of higher education in America, there is still a long way to go. What do you think the next changes need to be to improve access to education?


[1] “University History: The Story of Colorado State University,” Colorado State University, 2012, accessed spring 2014,; “LSC History,” Lory Student Center: Colorado State University, 2014, accessed March 12, 2014,; “Mission Statement,” Lory Student Center: Colorado State University, 2014, accessed spring 2014,

[2] Hansen, Democracy’s College, 44.

[3] Silver Spruce, 1895, Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University Archives; “24th Annual Catalogue,” the State Agriculture College, 1902-1903, Fort Collins, CO, Colorado State University Archives.

[4] “A Chronology of Colorado’s Land-Grant University,” Colorado State University, accessed May 28, 2014,

[5] Tom Skillman, “Student Unrest…in Perspective,” Alumnus Quarterly Magazine 44 (1968), Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, Board of Governors, Box 8, Folder: Football Stadium.

[6] “PC Collection Finding Aid Description,” Colorado State University Archive, Fort Collins, CO, accessed April 3, 2014,

[7] Jim Hansen, Democracy’s University: A History of Colorado State University 1970-2003, (Fort Collins, Colorado, Library of Congress Cataloging-in Publication Data: 2007), 306; “The AIDS Memorial Quilt,” NAMES Project Foundation, accessed June 2, 2013,; “AIDS Memorial Quilt Marks 25 Years with Display in D.C.” World News. June 22, 2012. Accessed May 29, 2014.; Tony Phifer, “Colorado State University to Host Display of AIDS Memorial Quilt,” Colorado State University, accessed June 2, 2014, November 20, 2012,

[8] CSU Online

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