In the nineteenth century, American education was still seen as inferior to the European system. Outside developments, like rapid industrialization, an atmosphere of manifest destiny, and, later, the need to rebuild after the Civil War, spurred change. Institutions of higher education responded to the new needs of an industrialized country by modernizing their curricula to include science and engineering courses. The nineteenth century also saw the creation of the first departments and schools of science, as well as the first B.S. and Ph.B. degrees.
As a result of this transformation, there was a boom in founding schools in the nineteenth century, which would come to be known as a definitive era for American universities. In fact, over seven hundred colleges died in the United States before the start of the Civil War. While the turmoil of the Civil War proved fatal for many colleges, it also created a crucial opportunity for reorganizing and reinventing. Rudolph touches on the critical nature of this period and points out, “The opportunities for redefinition that lay before the American college in the years after the Civil War were large… New institutions and new approaches now seemed to announce in the clearest of voices that the time had come when the old-time colleges would have to decide whether they would be instruments of the past or of the future, and how they would meet the now imperative needs of an expanding industrial nation and of a developing national power." The federal government responded to this transformation by creating the first Department of Education in 1867. As Lehigh was founded in 1865, it is part of this defining and dynamic period in the history of American higher education.