The nation's great system of public universities got its start 150 years ago this week when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, creating land-grant colleges. The Congress of 1862, convened while the United States was engulfed in the Civil War, took an enlightened long view and saw the value of strong government support for higher education. Unlike today's leaders, members of that Congress were able to look beyond a depressing present to a better future — and were willing to provide the means and money to educate tomorrow's citizens.
These congressmen didn't demur. They didn't say that military expenditures had to come first or that there was no time, amid a war, to worry about anything else. Instead, they made an audacious bet on the future of a country in crisis. They gave away hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land for states to sell to create endowments to start colleges. From such farsighted leadership came the great public research universities we have today. The University of Florida was the state's first land-grant institution, and Florida A&M University benefited from a later iteration of the act. Across the country, more than 70 universities benefited, including the renowned University of California.
Contrast that achievement with today, where state and federal support for higher education has declined and students are increasingly left to shoulder more of the burden. Today's leaders face no bloody Civil War, merely an economic downturn, but still they retreat at a full run from the promise to higher education made by their forebears, a vow that made higher education a democratic meritocracy and fostered the American Century.
Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, after whom the land-grant act was named, never attended college. He was the son of a blacksmith who couldn't afford the tuition. But Morrill made his own way in the world and when he had the chance, he pushed the legislation that opened up to the deserving masses the very education that he had been denied. Now there's a history lesson.