It was the first “moon shot” for U.S. higher education.
On July 2, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law. Designed to provide at least one university in each state and expand access to higher education to the working class, the Morrill Act gave 30,000 acres of land for each member of congress in a state. This land was to be sold and the funds used to endow one or more universities in that state. It ushered in a new era for higher education.
Intended to teach agriculture, mechanical arts, humanities and military science to a broad swath of society, the Morrill Act began the democratization of higher education and led to a period of immense innovation and prosperity.
The act was not without controversy and, in fact, did not pass when it was first brought to Congress in 1858. Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the act’s sponsor, had this to say about the need for expanded access to higher education: “Concerted effort is necessary to educate and elevate whole nations. That effort is being made abroad with governmental aid in the lead. Here, in the ‘model Republic,’ where a free republican government is installed to guard the general welfare, no such effort is being made.”
The act did finally pass in 1862 and, as Mark Yudof of the University of California system wrote recently, “The Morrill Act opened access to learning for ... future generations who might otherwise never have had the opportunity to earn an education.”
The GI Bill, which many consider the second moon shot for higher education (and American prosperity), would not have been possible had the Morrill Act not passed – there would not have been enough colleges and universities to absorb these new students.
From the Morrill Act came some of our well-known colleges and universities, including Cornell, MIT, Rutgers, Texas A&M, the University of Wisconsin, and most other state universities. Many of the people who developed the technology to win our wars were educated in land-grant institutions, as were those that launched rockets into space, brought Apollo 13 home safely, won Nobel Prizes, and ran small or large businesses.
And many of those who will win future Nobel Prizes and launch new businesses will likely be products of the land-grant institutions. According to a recent Boston.com article, “Land-grant schools now enroll 4.6 million students nationwide and command about two-thirds of all federally-funded academic research, amounting to $34 billion annually.”
What an awesome legacy.
However, higher education, particularly public higher education is under threat.
Prior to the Morrill Act, higher education in the United States was for the elite. Then, during a very fractious time in our history congress came together to pass the Morrill Act.
We’re at another fractious time in our nation’s history and access to quality higher education is becoming more difficult for many Americans – how can we come together to protect access and strengthen the institutions that helped make us great?