States Choose Between Quality, Accessibility In Higher Education

With support for new taxes arguably at an all-time low, states are looking for ways to cut costs. In the sights of the cost cutters are state contributions to public universities. In recent days this discussion has focused on the conflict between accessibility and quality. Public universities are raising tuition to make up for declining state support and increasingly pricing themselves out of the reach of larger and larger numbers of students. Some have suggested the solution to this is for public universities to abandon their quest for excellence and adopt cost-cutting strategies for educating students. Putting this debate into a historical context might help inform both legislatures and the general public.

The dichotomy between accessibility and quality has a long history. Early on Americans committed themselves to quality advanced education. As early as the 17th century Harvard was already recognized in England as a significant college. By the time of the Revolution the nation claimed several quality colleges. But these were small affairs accommodating the children of the already well established, and by the early national period most were or became private. By the second half of the 19th century the nation housed a score of these elite schools along with a handful of public universities which looked and behaved very similarly to the elite private schools. These were places where fortunate students were taught by the best and the brightest of professors, such as Louis Agassiz at Harvard or William Sedgwick or Ellen Swallow at MIT, who themselves were often engaged in exciting, innovative research. They were not places affordable or accessible for the lower and the lower middle classes — the vast majority of Americans.

Accessible postsecondary education was to be found in the Normal Colleges or the State Land Grant Colleges. The Normal Colleges were initially established to train teachers — the first founded by Horace Mann of Massachusetts in 1836. The Land Grant Colleges came out of the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act which granted each state 30,000 acres of public land for each senator and representative in Congress to endow an agricultural college — leading to the establishment of 69 land-grant colleges.

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