The New Yorker has a fantastic article on theories of education and how the reasons for why people go to college have changed over the years. The description sounds a bit dull but the article is really very good.
It tracks how the perception of what a college education should do, at least in the States, has changed and evolved over the years.
For example, selection by academic ability is a relatively new concept. Ivy League universities were largely considered as finishing schools for young men, and presumably, the occasional daring young woman who had the support of their family and felt there was more to life than getting up the duff (Americans: blessed with child).
In the mid 20th Century, the concept changed so college was considered a place to identify and shape the brightest members of society, while more recently it has become seen as a place to deliver needs-specific training.
The articles weaves in this story with modern ideas and preoccupations about whether students actually learn anything useful and whether education is being dumbed down, prettied up or sold out.
Link to New Yorker article.