While America's first colleges were built mainly to produce ministers, by the late 17th- early 18th Century they had evolved towards something akin to a Brit "Gentleman's education," with curricula including math, some sciences including anatomy, Rhetoric, Ethics, Georgraphy, Christianity, Latin and Greek. Thomas Jefferson, an aristocrat more-or-less, attended the College of William and Mary for only two years, but was mainly tutor-educated and self-educated as were most ambitiously-curious folks in the time, and up past Abe Lincoln's time. He, after all, never saw a college.
Gentlemen, would-be clergy, and the rare would-be teacher attended colleges (but did not necessarily bother to graduate). And the prosperous, up through Teddy Roosevelt's time, were tutored at home while the practically-oriented primary schooling was for the working classes. (I don't believe TR ever attended school until he entered Harvard College. He had to pass their Greek and French test, along with other exams, for admission.)
The rise of public libraries, beginning in the early 18th C, had a huge impact on self-education up through the early 20th Century. For those who could not afford to buy books, these were like the internet for learners.
The research room in the NY Public Library. America's libraries are where many accomplished people without means received all of their "higher" education since 1730:
The evolution of American higher ed is fascinating as these institutions attempted to keep themselves relevant and in demand and to ultimately create a monopolistic if meaningless credential. American higher ed borrowed from the European, but has always been quite different. My reading suggests these phases in its evolution:
1. Education for clergy
2. Education for clergy and serious scholars (by the time Jonathan Edwards went to Yale, they had a few science and math courses at which he excelled)
3. Education for gentlemen (meaning people who didn't necessarily need jobs, but wanted to be socio-culturally sophisticated), plus clergy and serious scholars. The vast majority of colleges still affiliated with religious institutions. The Liberal Arts, today much expanded, are a residue of this era.
4. A transitional phase from the mid to late 1800s with the borrowing of the idea of graduate studies from the Germans (although they made no distinction, really, between the two), along with the introduction of teaching colleges for women and the beginning of more secular general-education colleges (including ag colleges) opened by states in the South and West. The notion of "the gentleman's 'C' "emerges in Eastern colleges as a first sign of educational decadence. Higher Ed for women, mainly in Teachers' Schools.
5. The early 20th C phase of the monopolization of pre-professional education and credentialism, the taking-over of, for example, medical education from the hospitals, a large increase in the number of areas of study and of graduate study (in 1830, people would have laughed at the notion of "studying" English literature - that was their entertainment). Growth of the democratization of higher ed, with some practical studies earning respect, as in MIT and the like. It's easy to forget that, until the early 20th C, college was not pre-professional education, and that graduate studies (borrowed from the German universiteis) was only for a select few who intended lives of scholarship): Law, Denstistry, and Surgery were by apprenticeship, Business and Farming by experience, and the few medical schools (which avoided surgery) in the US did not require college for admission.
6. The period since WW2 of the fullest democratization of higher ed, with abundant local and federal government support, a stunning diminishment of rigor with the expansion of numbers of schools, and much of it oriented towards practical work preparation which had previously been offered in the high schools or through apprenticeship. College becomes a protracted adolescence and graduation a rite of passage. If 60 is the old 40, then college, for many, is becoming the old High School.
Those more knowledgeable than I am might see different patterns in this evolution. I am no expert.
What I find most interesting about it is how higher ed - and education in general - has become an industry like any other sort, seeking monopolies, seeking government favor, seeking customers, monopolizing all sorts of expanded credentializations, trying to please and keep customers, selling and branding their product. That's why I term it McEducation.
Here's one fairly good summary: A New History of Higher Education in Nineteenth Century America: A Prolegomenon