Mark Shields: The crackpot idea of free college tuition
Prominent opinion-leaders and leading American politicians have roundly rejected the unrealistic and impractical idea, championed by a member of Congress from Vermont, to provide a four-year college education at no, or very low, tuition cost to every American high school student who qualifies for admission.
What many of the critics either have forgotten or never knew is that this frankly radical notion is not new. In fact, the Vermonter who originally advocated this major federal intrusion was not a socialist named Bernie Sanders, but a Republican named Justin Smith Morrill. Sen. Morrill sponsored the law and President Abraham Lincoln signed it in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War when more Americans died than in all other U.S. conflicts combined.
The Morrill Land Grant Act gave each northern state 30,000 acres of federal land for the number of its congressional seats.
Some states used the funds from the sale of the land to establish new colleges that would provide an education for the industrial classes. These were the children, not of the aristocracy, but of the farmers and laborers who previously never had the opportunity to study engineering or agriculture or liberal arts.
Some of the land-grant schools funded by the Morrill Act helped establish such universities as MIT, Cornell, Purdue, and the great universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and Illinois — some 70 colleges in all.
When exactly did the United States dare to dream such great dreams and boldly act on them? During the darkest days of the nation’s deadliest struggle (625,000 American lives lost), with the very survival of the Union in doubt — that’s when. At the time President Lincoln signed the law, the population of the U.S. was just 33 million, and the nation’s gross domestic product is estimated to have been less than $7 billion. Some crackpot idea indeed.
In 1868 when the land-grant-funded University of California was founded — charging no tuition — there were barely 500,000 people living in the Golden State, fewer than now reside in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. For the next 90 years, until the governorship of Ronald Reagan, the University of California school system remained free of charge. Since then, it has become one of the world’s great university systems, producing 63 Nobel Prize winners to date.
What is as intriguing as it is distressing is that in 2016, the U.S., a powerful continental nation with impressive statistics (a population of 323 million with a GDP approaching $18 trillion) seems to lack the imagination to dream even semi-great public dreams, let alone the collective will and mutual trust to dare greatly. Thank goodness that once, more than 150 years ago, there were Americans like Morrill and Lincoln who did dare to act fearlessly upon their belief that the legitimate object of government is “to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.” That America can-do spirit is sadly missing in this campaign of small ideas.