July 2, 1862, was a busy day for President Abraham Lincoln. He dispatched several letters to far-flung military commanders. He held meetings on the war and on the status of fugitive slaves. He also signed three laws, including one banning polygamy in the territories and another creating a loyalty oath for all government officials. The final law Lincoln signed, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, putting the federal government in charge of the development of public colleges and universities, not only turned out to be the most important of the three bills he signed but stands as an enduring legacy of his presidency.
The long-germinating land-for-education bill was the brainchild of a self-taught son of a blacksmith, Representative—and later Senator— Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, a Republican. He believed that the classical education offered at most colleges was incapable of meeting the practical, roll-up-your-sleeves demands of a growing, industrializing nation. Although the precedent of using land proceeds for educational purposes dated back to the founding, Morrill's first effort to enlist federal support for "colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts" was vetoed by President James Buchanan, a Democrat, in 1859. Buchanan, who was from Pennsylvania, agreed with the Southern wing of his party that education was a state matter, not a federal one.
Undeterred, Morrill waited for more-favorable political circumstances, seizing his opportunity after the outbreak of the Civil War. The secession of the Confederate states scattered Democratic opposition to the legislation at the same time that Lincoln's impassioned call for "Union!" fortified it with new meaning. By offering loyal states 30,000 acres of land per congressman (a vast 17.4 million acres total), the act helped endow a "college in every State upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil," as Morrill memorably put it.
Shady land deals made the future of some colleges less secure than it ought to have been, but by the dawn of the 20th century every state was home to at least one "cow college," and to two in the segregated South. Along the way, government involvement became much more hands-on, eventually leading to direct support not only for the public land-grant colleges but for private institutions as well.
During the Great Depression, New Deal programs contributed to the construction of 600 campus buildings, while Federal Work-Study helped 620,000 students stay in college. But it was World War II that marked the real turning point in federal-academic relations: The government pumped $3.5-billion into military research, anchored by the development of the atomic bomb, and then into the education of returning veterans under the GI Bill, leading to even greater public investments in ideas and people later on. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 launched the government into the student-loan business; the Higher Education Act of 1965 and its later amendments extended the loan program and added work-study and federal grants to the mix of aid options.
By the 1970s college had become a reachable goal for millions of Americans, including underserved populations who flocked to the booming land-grant institutions. As they had with coeducation in the 19th century, the land-grant colleges, compelled by federal law and mass protests, at long last accommodated racial integration, proving once and for all that a government of the people really could provide an educational system for the people.
Today the old consensus around higher education as a public good has withered away. Three decades of regressive tax policies, capped by four years of acute economic crisis, have left the sector reeling. Plummeting state-level support, which dipped below 8 percent nationally last year, has exacerbated the impact of rapidly rising costs, shifting an ever greater financial burden onto students and families. College students are piling up mountains of debt (averaging $25,000), taking longer to graduate (averaging six years)—if they graduate at all (half don't, according to some measures), and then struggling to find a well-paying job (9 percent can't).
Despite those sobering statistics, a college education remains well worth the investment. Over time, college graduates have far greater earning potential and labor-market mobility than their less-educated peers; they tend to be more civically and politically engaged; they report a higher quality of life and enjoy a longer life expectancy; and they are more likely to have a significant other with a college degree, which often begets a final advantage: Children from college-educated households are more likely to become college graduates themselves. The benefits of a college diploma really do reach across the generations.
And for generations, it has been the public that has supported the country's educational system—as it still does. State support may have dropped to all-time lows in the past four years, but federal funds have held steady for research and even increased for student aid, making possible the discoveries and educated citizens our country and world need.
As always, the land-grant colleges carry an especially heavy load. According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, its member institutions enroll nearly 4.6 million students, the overwhelming majority of whom depend on federal aid to attend. The colleges employ more than 645,000 faculty and three times as many administrators and staff; they are among the main economic engines of their states and regions; and they receive two-thirds of all federal research dollars, amassing more than $34-billion annually.
Where does the rest of the money go? It flows to private institutions, and has since World War II. Last year the private university where I work attracted about $600-million in research support, practically every penny from the federal government. Federal student aid is spread even farther afield, following students wherever they go, to public and private nonprofits, from Berkeley to Harvard, as well as to private for-profits like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University, where by law up to 90 percent of their revenues may derive from student aid. Which is to say that while the combination of funds differs at different institutions, the bottom line doesn't change: American higher education is still publicly supported, even at supposedly "private" institutions, and most of the country's 4,400 colleges and 18 million students could not survive without it.
That's why the Morrill Act still matters, despite the many educators, administrators, and policy makers who mistakenly think of higher education as a private enterprise, unmoored from the public it was created to serve. The Morrill Act symbolizes the public trust that has given life to our nation's entire educational system for the past 150 years—and it reminds us all of the public commitment that will be necessary for the system to thrive for 150 more.