In Bethel’s early days, post-colonial Harvard educated clergymen and gentlemen. They might engage in medicine or law, commerce or politics, but they learned those on the job. Other colleges were similar, and further away; there was little or no interest on the Maine frontier.

As Bethel ceased to be a frontier town, higher education came closer (Bowdoin, 1802; Colby, 1813). More young people envisioned new roles in life. College could lead away from Maine’s soon declining farming sector. Commerce and politics demanded more education. Across the 19th Century doctors and lawyers increasingly attended college (often briefly) and eventually went on to professional schools (Bowdoin Medical School, 1820-1920). Engineering and agriculture began to require more science, offered to some extent in the private colleges, increasingly in the developing state university that drew federal support from the Land Grant Acts. Normal schools, located all across the state, eventually became teachers’ colleges; they were among the limited number of institutions that actually encouraged women to enroll.

The idea of a “selective” university or college only really appears after World War II. Until then, if you could afford to go, and had sufficient previous education, you were in. Harvard cost more, and was further away, than the local college or land grant university, and might not offer the course you wanted, but you wouldn’t be rejected if you applied (unless you were female). Bowdoin, Bates, Colby, and the growing public system of university and normal schools/teachers colleges were equally welcoming and closer.

Then came “modern times.” The 20th Century BA denoted middle-class status; by the 60s it was a fetish and the preliminary requirement for most good jobs. As private liberal arts colleges became more selective and less locally oriented, the public university became a statewide system of institutions; teachers colleges became branches; USM became the biggest institution in the 21st Century. Specialist schools (Maine Maritime Academy, 1941) and private universities (UNE, a product of amalgamations; Husson) appeared and flourished. Community colleges developed, meeting local and regional needs for easily accessible technical and general education.

Sadly, the cost of college has more than kept pace with incomes: free community college will only begin to address that problem.

David R Jones has studied and worked in some of Maine’s public colleges and universities.

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