150 Years of College Access

At celebration of land-grant universities, Bill Gates and others tell campus leaders they must use financial aid and new technology to maintain the Morrill Act's emphasis on student access and agricultural education.

June 27, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Public colleges must increase access by keeping costs of attendance down and harnessing technology to engage and educate students, a parade of big-name speakers said Tuesday at a conference celebrating the sesquicentennial of the national legislation that established public universities.

Students, professors and higher education officials gathered at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ event -- 150 Years of the Morrill Act: Advancing the Legacy -- to discuss how to continue fulfilling the law's objectives. The Morrill Act, passed in 1862, donated public lands to several states and designated revenue from the sale of those lands to fund colleges and increase access to education, especially in agriculture and engineering, to address society’s needs.

“Today is not about the past,” said Sterling Speirn, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which supports and promotes opportunities for vulnerable children and communities. He and other speakers said that to uphold the act’s goals, colleges should award financial aid more efficiently, learn how to use advancements in technology to teach more effectively, and double down on encouraging American students to enter the increasingly foreign-dominated STEM fields.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that cuts in state funding for higher education are placing the cost burden on students, leading to rising loan debt, and that federal funding efforts to offset the cost increase are unsustainable. Although financial aid funding levels might not be sufficient to cope with the rising prices and low-income applicants, Gates said that states should structure the aid they do have to provide incentives for colleges to raise completion rates. He also said states should prioritize need-based financial aid.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke later in the day, reiterated one of his common refrains, calling on states to maintain funding and colleges to keep prices low to mitigate alarming levels of student loan debt. “Keeping costs down and boosting completion rates is a shared responsibility,” he said.

Shunning the phrase “nontraditional student,” Duncan said that today’s college students don’t fit any sort of mold and can’t be labeled as either traditional or nontraditional. He said colleges must embrace three-year degrees and make transferring courses from community college easier to accommodate students, many of whom are commuters or are returning to college after working.

Gates said that colleges should also adopt adaptive learning technologies, which can track student progress and tailor course material for individual students, to make college more manageable for a diverse set of learners. He said many of these initiatives remain in the pilot stage, and institutions are still figuring out how to use them. The Gates Foundation recently announced several grants it will award, including one to a new online college that will incorporate adaptive learning techniques into its teaching.

Arizona State University offers a “hybrid” introductory math course that supplements class lectures with personalized computer software for each student targeting the material he or she has trouble understanding. This teaching method has increased the course’s completion rate by 17 percent and cut costs by one third, Gates said. He added that approaches like this should be used to monitor less-motivated students and ensure they don’t fall through the cracks in remedial or introductory courses that traditionally don’t offer much individualized attention.

Officials and administrators also focused on the role of public institutions in fostering STEM research, another area where they said students are likely to lose interest. Duncan said that American students often become disenchanted with the STEM disciplines as early as third grade, when teachers lose confidence in the math and science material they are teaching and are unable to instill excitement in students or encourage them to pursue those fields down the road.

Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York System, also called attention to leaks in what she and other speakers called the “education pipeline.” She said the United States has not coordinated its elementary, secondary and higher education systems. When students who begin falling behind in kindergarten reach college -- if they don’t drop out along the way -- they require remedial courses, which cost colleges money and often don’t get the student back on track.

In light of this and other challenges highlighted, Zimpher said that rather than remaining decentralized state institutions, public colleges should work together to continue fighting to achieve the land-grant act’s mission collectively.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said his agency is also encouraging young students to pursue STEM study. The department is working with groups such as the 4-H and Future Farmers of America to foster more agriculture-oriented STEM research among elementary and secondary school students. He also said the department must market agricultural research and make it “sexy” to attract young researchers.

One of the main tenets of the Morrill Act is to promote agricultural education, and Vilsack -- along with faculty members and administrators from the University of Illinois, the University of Hawaii and Purdue University -- affirmed the continuing importance of agriculture in the nation’s economy and public education system.

Vilsack said the cornerstone of the United States’ rural economy is converting agricultural waste into usable chemicals and compounds, such as the repurposed corn cobs that Coca-Cola uses to create plastic bottles. “This is an unlimited future that’s ahead of us,” he said, adding that a continued commitment to agricultural research is a critical component of this future.

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Elise Young

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