Public Universities Juggle Affordability, Accessibility

As government support for higher education shrinks to an all-time low, public university systems around the country are faced with having to compromise between keeping college affordable to the largest number of students and providing them with a degree of a quality they can count on. A number of people are now wondering if by raising tuition in order to retain this level of excellence, the schools are betraying their mission of allowing even the most needy of students a path to a college education.

According to John Cumbler writing for The Courier-Journal, this push-and-pull between quality and accessibility has always been an issue public universities have had to deal with. Although private universities have been operating in America since the 17th century, when public universities were created in the 19th century, they operated along similar lines — meaning, they were exclusive, expensive and thus open only to the fortunate few who could afford their fees.

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.

Cumbler writes that there was always supposed to be a separation between schools where groundbreaking research took place and where the country's brightest — and richest — brains looked for an education, and Normal Colleges that served as training grounds for the future professionals from the lower- and middle-class families. In particular, they were places where the next generation of farmers came to learn the latest developments in agriculture and animal husbandry.

This model of a bifurcated higher education system remained in place, with some exceptions, until the turn of the century when Robert La Follette of Wisconsin initiated the "Wisconsin Idea." The heart of the Wisconsin Idea was to initiate a graduated tax and pour the additional revenue into the university, making it a university of excellence which would serve the state by providing both the highest quality education for its citizens, regardless of their economic status, and by being a center for research and invention which would serve the state.

The next step in the revolution of higher education was the GI Bill. When the veterans of WW2 started coming home in droves, many took advantage of the government grant program in order to afford a college degree they were previously unable to finance.

For the next 50 years, the federal government and the states believed the investment of tax dollars in the public university system to be worthwhile. Yet, as the belief in Big Government gives way to tougher economic realities, Cumbler sees that a retreat back to the two-tier system to be inevitable.

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