21st Century Morrill Act Needed To Help Ease College Debt
August 21, 2012

150 Years Later, Lincoln’s Morrill Act Still Bearing Fruits

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

One hundred and fifty years ago, president Abraham Lincoln signed a law into place that transformed college education, but a new 21st century version would help ease student debt, and help colleges and universities deal with budget cuts.

Amy Bix, Ph.D. said at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) that a modern version of the Morrill Act is a tangible way to help reinvest in higher education.

"It would come at a time when the federal government and many states have dramatically reduced their funding of colleges, and when students worry more than ever about being able to afford college without drowning in debt," Bix said in a press release.

The law Lincoln signed helped establish land grant system of colleges and universities, while a companion legislation in 1890 led to the establishment of land grant institutions for African-Americans.

Over 100 institutions with land grant status today produce more than half the country's Ph.D. scientists and engineers, according to Bix.

ACS panelists ranked the Morrill Act next to the GI Bill in importance in defining higher education in the U.S.

"The Morrill Act established higher education as a fundamental American objective and provided the means (at the time) to achieve it," Alan Marcus, Ph.D., of Mississippi State University, said. "It enabled children from all walks of life to develop their minds and receive various kinds of technical training and intellectual skills. It made education and especially the acquisition and implementation of knowledge as appropriate objectives and as ways to improve America. Its locus in the states made experimentation easy and common."

Recent studies indicate that the number of students having to go into debt to get a bachelor's degree has risen from 45 percent in 1993, to 94 percent today. There is now over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the U.S.

In the past decade, tuition fees at state schools have jumped 72 percent, and after decades of slow growth, state funding to higher education has dropped by 15 percent since 2008.

"Both faculty and students in the higher education community in the United States represent an immense wealth of creativity, innovative power and ambition," Gary Schuster, Ph.D., of Georgia Tech said. "With the current higher education system, however, there are not many regularly available mechanisms designed to harness that energy, hone it and channel it to the next steps."

A 21st century Morrill Act could involve a legislation that "lifts the financial burden of higher education from the shoulders of middle class and working people," Stephen J. Weininger, Ph.D., of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said in a press release.

"The struggle to pay off college debt is having serious consequences for the entire country, not just those in debt, because of the many negative incentives it generates," Weininger said. "The country needs a well-educated work force; staggering college debt is a major hindrance to that goal."

ACS President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, Ph.D. called on the society's members to work as scientist-citizens to help solve challenges facing us, such as "population growth, limited natural resources, malnutrition, disease, climate change, violence and war, and the denial of basic human rights."

"We can look to the past in solving challenges in the future," he said in a statement. "The Morrill Act transformed American higher education for people in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it may help instruct us on how to do the same in the 21st century."

The National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society is the world's largest scientific society, and includes nearly 8,600 reports on new advances in science and other topics. RedOrbit is covering the meeting, and will be bringing you the latest in scientific discoveries announced this week at the event.