Most Americans Believe College Is a Right (So What's the Hangup in Congress?)

A deeply divided Congress gives us little hope, but 150 years ago an equally partisan climate produced some of the nation's top public universities.

Millions of students nationwide breathed a sigh of relief this week when after months of political theater, Congress announced a tentative deal to prevent student loan rates from doubling. While knowing that the rate will stay at 3.4 percent for another year is good news, such partisan wrangling over higher education is, according to a recent national poll by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, out of step with what most Americans believe. Carnegie found that a full 76 percent of Americans believe access to higher education should be a right and 67 percent believe that the cost of college is the greatest barrier to that access.

Indeed, according to the poll, Americans believe that the cost of higher education is a greater deterrent than bad high school grades; lack of encouragement from family, teachers, or guidance counselors; and a lack of information about financial aid and how to apply to college. But, given the insanely politicized bickering over interest rates and ongoing acrimonious fights in state houses over higher education cuts, is there any hope that our politicians can ever get it together so American students can get the college education we believe they deserve?

Interestingly, the inspiration behind Carnegie's poll is the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862—legislation that gave land grants to each state, which enabled the creation of over 70 schools, including world class ones like the University of California, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Texas A&M. And—get ready for a little history lesson—the act emerged from an era of deep political division.

In 1857 Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont submitted the act to Congress, and it was eventually passed in 1859. President James Buchanan vetoed it, ostensibly over the proposed land grant schools’ fluffy emphasis on teaching engineering and agriculture instead of military tactics. Morrill resubmitted the act in 1861, this time including provisions for teaching military tactics. The passage of the act was helped in part by the secession of the Southern states—which took several dissenters out of the picture.

So does this mean that nowadays we also need to have states secede so, for example, certain members of Congress who were holding up the student loan interest rate renewal no longer have a say—and everyone who’s left can work together to put into place legislation that enables students to go to college and afford it? Not exactly. What really made the difference was that there was substantial bipartisan support in the 37th Congress for the creation of universities. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the act into in law, opening the doors of higher education to more than the sons of wealthy landowners.

Sadly, Carnegie's current poll found that 53 percent of Americans don't believe that the current Congress and White House can can cross party lines in order to accomplish something similar. However, 72 percent said they'd rather "see their elected officials work in a bipartisan fashion" instead of squaring off on opposite sides of the ring.

While "the poll was a way to compare the political will and commitment of our present era with a previous era," says Carnegie spokesperson George Soule, what Carnegie hopes people take away is that "during what was arguably when our nation was at its greatest point of peril that there was this ability of Congress to cross lines and do something that was distinctly focused on the future." America has to get back to the spirit that created the Morrill Act in the first place, says Soule. While he admits that "there’s not anyone at this point that has specific answers" on how that can happen, ultimately, if we focus on our commitment to looking "at the greater good of the nation" we'll get there.

In honor of Morrill and President Lincoln's brave focus on that greater good, this week representatives from Carnegie and 75 college and university presidents laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial. At the ceremony, Carnegie's president, Vartan Gregorian warned against the "kind of amnesia engulfing our country today where we are detached from our past." Part of changing that, says Gregorian, is colleges, universities, and their supporters stepping up to educate "the American public about the role of higher education—both public and private."

Indeed, although we are a nation divided, says Gregorian, "we shortchange our nation’s progress and squander our greatest renewable resource—our intellectual capital—if we allow critique of academia or passing partisan squabbling to stifle investment in higher education." As we head into the heat of this fall's election, let's hope our politicians remember that.

Photo via Library of Congress/ Abby Brack Lewis

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