College and America: A History

By John O. Sullivan

 

As with everything, context is key. The story of United States college education policy begins far before present day, and even before the G.I. Bill. In the pre-civil war era, in the United States, typically only the wealthy and powerful were educated at all. The universities of the day were very exclusive and very expensive, well out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of Americans, and obviously totally out of the question for women and people of color.

These schools taught subjects such as law and business, but also had a heavy focus on abstract learnings that were considered the hallmarks of the aristocracy, such as literature, theocracy, and philosophy, branches of knowledge that would serve a small-time farmer poorly. This paradigm was not shifted until Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land-Grant Act. When this law passed, each state was granted 30,000 acres of formerly federal land for each member of Congress representing the state. The land could then be used by the state as sites for institutions of higher education, or be sold by the state to generate the revenue to finance the construction, endowment, and maintenance of Agricultural Colleges. 7 U.S. Code § 304 defines the origin of these colleges and their formal purpose with the following:

The moneys so invested or loaned shall constitute a perpetual fund the capital of which shall remain forever undiminished … and the interest of which shall be inviolable appropriated … to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life. (7 U.S.C. § 304)

The subjects listed there are no accident. These first agricultural colleges were founded with the intent of teaching practical knowledge to further the national interest, to search for technological advancements, and to promote the general welfare of the country. In 1862, the Civil War was in full swing, and the subjects chosen, agricultural sciences, mechanical arts, and military tactics, are especially well suited to a nation at war, as well as a nation experiencing the first of the economic and societal changes brought on by the industrial revolution. These agricultural schools not only enhanced the state’s previously nonexistent role in higher education, they rapidly expanded the infrastructure of support and the number of classroom seats available for students of higher education, vastly increased the size of the population of people who could consider education as an option, and led to incredible advancements in technology, especially in the field of agriculture. In addition, many of these schools, rather unexpectedly, went on to become the best schools in the nation and some of the highest ranked in the world, including The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (#6), University of California, Berkeley (#8), University of California, Los Angeles (#12), and Cornell University (#19) according to the Forbes top 25 world university list.

The paradigm did not shift again until the G.I. Bill, and then it shifted again shortly after with the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). At the close of the Second World War, the United States welcomed many European refugees, especially those with education in STEM fields. However, those refugees could not even come close to meeting vigorous American demand for scientists and mathematicians, which was fueled by a robust economy and massive governmental research programs. Mounting feelings that the United States was falling behind scholastically, as well as the USSR’s successful launch of the Sputnik probe led to the National Defense Education Act in 1958. The NDEA authorized the provision of student loans, originally known as National Defense Student Loans (now known as Perkins Loans or National Direct Student Loans), as well as offering financial assistance for schools to create and expand math, science, and foreign language programs. It also created the groundwork for standardized testing and modern Gifted and Talented programs in public primary and secondary schools which were designed to help find and give special attention to those students who may go on to study STEM fields in higher education. While less equilibrium shattering than either the G.I. Bill or the Land-Grant Act, the NDEA shows us that, under the right circumstances, and in the name of national interest, the federal government is willing and able to pump massive amounts of money into the college education system.

In 1965, the equilibrium was again punctuated, this time by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” plan. Part of that plan was The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which showed a shift in federal-level policy regarding college education. First and foremost among these changes was the accelerated shift in how federal aid was targeted. Rather than direct aid to institutions and institutional programs, as the NDEA had, aid was targeted to individuals, in a manner more similar to the G.I. Bill or the Defense Loan. In addition to this, the original Higher Education Act provided a good deal of money for teacher assistance, over $100 million (equivalent to over $700 million when adjusted for inflation), in a bid to direct the newly acquired skills of these college graduates towards underserved and under-resourced communities, especially in poor urban and rural areas, where there were few experienced, qualified teachers.

The most recent substantial changes to federal policy on college education came several decades ago, with the Education Amendments of 1972. There are two significant and well known portions of this new addition to the law. One of these was Title IX, a groundbreaking and sweeping anti-discrimination law that impacted educational institutions at all levels, from elementary school to doctoral programs, and in almost every way, from the manner in which sexual misconduct is handled to the way sports are funded.

The second major change was the creation of what would come to be known as Pell Grants, after Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. Pell Grants kept the model established by earlier versions of the HEA by targeting low-income students of academic excellence with the desire but not the means to attend college. It however, broke from previous models by giving money directly and exclusively to students, rather than institutions.

When examined over a chronological continuum, these policies tell much more together than they do by individual analysis. What is clearly shown is a continued shift of Federal education policy attention, away from college education and towards high school policy. The federal government is by no means abandoning the sphere of college education, continued additions and amendments to the HEA sufficiently prove that point, though there is a distinct increase in federal desire to influence primary and secondary education, rather than leave K-12 education solely to the states. It could be argued that this move truly began with the NDEA, which provided money for high schools as well as colleges to expand their STEM and language offerings. It could also be argued that the federal government sought increased voice in public primary and secondary schools to create universal and predictable educational standards and outcomes, which would better prepare students for the modern era and for the world of higher education that previous policies had literally built. Additionally, federal intervention was critical during the desegregation of public schools in the south during the civil rights movement, and the increased federal control of public high schools following that period may have been a mere coincidence, but it is altogether more likely that those policies were influenced, at least in part, by lessons learned during that era. The shift of federal attention towards primary and secondary education, regardless of the reason, has drawn money, time, attention, and resources away from higher education. It almost seems that while this shift of focus has led to a number of valuable social programs that are executed through primary and secondary schools, including low-cost vaccination programs, free-and-reduced meal programs, and after school/extracurricular activities, it has allowed attention to move away from higher education, and allowed the state of higher education in the country to slip to a crisis point.

As with everything, context is key. The story of United States college education policy begins far before present day, and even before the G.I. Bill. In the pre-civil war era, in the United States, typically only the wealthy and powerful were educated at all. The universities of the day were very exclusive and very expensive, well out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of Americans, and obviously totally out of the question for women and people of color.

These schools taught subjects such as law and business, but also had a heavy focus on abstract learnings that were considered the hallmarks of the aristocracy, such as literature, theocracy, and philosophy, branches of knowledge that would serve a small-time farmer poorly. This paradigm was not shifted until Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land-Grant Act. When this law passed, each state was granted 30,000 acres of formerly federal land for each member of Congress representing the state. The land could then be used by the state as sites for institutions of higher education, or be sold by the state to generate the revenue to finance the construction, endowment, and maintenance of Agricultural Colleges. 7 U.S. Code § 304 defines the origin of these colleges and their formal purpose with the following:

The moneys so invested or loaned shall constitute a perpetual fund the capital of which shall remain forever undiminished … and the interest of which shall be inviolable appropriated … to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life. (7 U.S.C. § 304)

The subjects listed there are no accident. These first agricultural colleges were founded with the intent of teaching practical knowledge to further the national interest, to search for technological advancements, and to promote the general welfare of the country. In 1862, the Civil War was in full swing, and the subjects chosen, agricultural sciences, mechanical arts, and military tactics, are especially well suited to a nation at war, as well as a nation experiencing the first of the economic and societal changes brought on by the industrial revolution. These agricultural schools not only enhanced the state’s previously nonexistent role in higher education, they rapidly expanded the infrastructure of support and the number of classroom seats available for students of higher education, vastly increased the size of the population of people who could consider education as an option, and led to incredible advancements in technology, especially in the field of agriculture. In addition, many of these schools, rather unexpectedly, went on to become the best schools in the nation and some of the highest ranked in the world, including The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (#6), University of California, Berkeley (#8), University of California, Los Angeles (#12), and Cornell University (#19) according to the Forbes top 25 world university list.

The paradigm did not shift again until the G.I. Bill, and then it shifted again shortly after with the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). At the close of the Second World War, the United States welcomed many European refugees, especially those with education in STEM fields. However, those refugees could not even come close to meeting vigorous American demand for scientists and mathematicians, which was fueled by a robust economy and massive governmental research programs. Mounting feelings that the United States was falling behind scholastically, as well as the USSR’s successful launch of the Sputnik probe led to the National Defense Education Act in 1958. The NDEA authorized the provision of student loans, originally known as National Defense Student Loans (now known as Perkins Loans or National Direct Student Loans), as well as offering financial assistance for schools to create and expand math, science, and foreign language programs. It also created the groundwork for standardized testing and modern Gifted and Talented programs in public primary and secondary schools which were designed to help find and give special attention to those students who may go on to study STEM fields in higher education. While less equilibrium shattering than either the G.I. Bill or the Land-Grant Act, the NDEA shows us that, under the right circumstances, and in the name of national interest, the federal government is willing and able to pump massive amounts of money into the college education system.

In 1965, the equilibrium was again punctuated, this time by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” plan. Part of that plan was The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which showed a shift in federal-level policy regarding college education. First and foremost among these changes was the accelerated shift in how federal aid was targeted. Rather than direct aid to institutions and institutional programs, as the NDEA had, aid was targeted to individuals, in a manner more similar to the G.I. Bill or the Defense Loan. In addition to this, the original Higher Education Act provided a good deal of money for teacher assistance, over $100 million (equivalent to over $700 million when adjusted for inflation), in a bid to direct the newly acquired skills of these college graduates towards underserved and under-resourced communities, especially in poor urban and rural areas, where there were few experienced, qualified teachers.

The most recent substantial changes to federal policy on college education came several decades ago, with the Education Amendments of 1972. There are two significant and well known portions of this new addition to the law. One of these was Title IX, a groundbreaking and sweeping anti-discrimination law that impacted educational institutions at all levels, from elementary school to doctoral programs, and in almost every way, from the manner in which sexual misconduct is handled to the way sports are funded.

The second major change was the creation of what would come to be known as Pell Grants, after Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. Pell Grants kept the model established by earlier versions of the HEA by targeting low-income students of academic excellence with the desire but not the means to attend college. It however, broke from previous models by giving money directly and exclusively to students, rather than institutions.

When examined over a chronological continuum, these policies tell much more together than they do by individual analysis. What is clearly shown is a continued shift of Federal education policy attention, away from college education and towards high school policy. The federal government is by no means abandoning the sphere of college education, continued additions and amendments to the HEA sufficiently prove that point, though there is a distinct increase in federal desire to influence primary and secondary education, rather than leave K-12 education solely to the states. It could be argued that this move truly began with the NDEA, which provided money for high schools as well as colleges to expand their STEM and language offerings. It could also be argued that the federal government sought increased voice in public primary and secondary schools to create universal and predictable educational standards and outcomes, which would better prepare students for the modern era and for the world of higher education that previous policies had literally built. Additionally, federal intervention was critical during the desegregation of public schools in the south during the civil rights movement, and the increased federal control of public high schools following that period may have been a mere coincidence, but it is altogether more likely that those policies were influenced, at least in part, by lessons learned during that era. The shift of federal attention towards primary and secondary education, regardless of the reason, has drawn money, time, attention, and resources away from higher education. It almost seems that while this shift of focus has led to a number of valuable social programs that are executed through primary and secondary schools, including low-cost vaccination programs, free-and-reduced meal programs, and after school/extracurricular activities, it has allowed attention to move away from higher education, and allowed the state of higher education in the country to slip to a crisis point.

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