Like universities, colleges first appeared in the Middle Ages; the earliest were founded in 12th-century Paris. Originally the college served as an endowed residence hall for university scholars, but later it absorbed much of the university's activity. It was in England, at Oxford and Cambridge, that the college became the principal center of learning, with the university serving mainly to examine candidates and confer degrees.
The Industrial Revolution brought a demand for scientific and technical education, and separate technical colleges (e.g., Yorkshire Science College in Leeds) were founded. Moreover, extension lectures, sponsored by the universities, created a demand for educational centers in remote areas. Degrees, however, continued to be conferred by the universities with which the colleges were affiliated.
It was in America that the liberal arts college first appeared extensively as a separate institution. In the 17th and early 18th cent., numerous colleges were established in the colonies, primarily to train young men for the ministry. Notable were Harvard (1636; Puritan), William and Mary (1693; Anglican), Yale (1701; Congregationalist), Princeton (1746; New Lights Presbyterian), Columbia (1754; Anglican), Brown (1765; Baptist), and Rutgers (1766; Dutch Reformed).
During the 19th cent. a number of women's colleges were founded. Notable early women's colleges were Mt. Holyoke (1837), Elmira (1853), Vassar (1861), Wellesley (1871), Smith (1871), and Bryn Mawr (1881). Another development of the 19th cent. was the growth of normal schools, which later became teachers colleges (see teacher training). Though the curricula and ideals of American colleges continued to be influenced by English schools, many American colleges, stimulated by the German university system and by the increasing demand for technical instruction, began to expand their facilities to include graduate and professional schools. In the 21st cent., colleges have been affected more dramatically than universities by the rise of online education and the increase in for-profit educational institutions. By 2010, a tenth of all students attending college full-time were enrolled in a for-profit school.
By the 20th cent. many American colleges had become universities, and by the middle of the century universities were giving out twice as many bachelor's degrees as were the traditional liberal arts colleges. In an attempt to reassert the importance of the colleges, many of them have been empowered to grant graduate degrees, especially the master's degree. Since the 1960s, the community college movement has been most important in expanding opportunities for higher education. By allowing students to live at home, operating with more flexible schedules, focusing on technical curricula, and adopting policies of open enrollment, the community colleges have made college training available to a larger segment of high-school graduates. Still another development has been the establishment of cluster colleges, such as the Univ. of California at Santa Cruz (est. 1965), which provide the personalized education that is characteristic of the small college without sacrificing the quality and diversity of the university.