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What Abe Lincoln Got Right About Higher Ed

Commentary

Note: This article originally appeared at Real Clear Policy on November 16, 2012.

This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. Reflecting on Morrill’s structure, we find a better model for federal support of higher education than that operating presently. This issue arose during the October 3rd debate between President Obama and Governor Romney. There, the Republican challenger announced that he intended to follow the Morrill precedent should he win office. Of course, Romney lost the election, but that did not stop President Obama from declaring at his Wednesday press conference that he liked several of his opponent’s proposals for reform. “There are certain aspects of Governor Romney's record and his ideas that I think could be very helpful. He presented some ideas in the course of the campaign that I actually agree with,” said Obama.

Let us hope that the Morrill model is one of the proposals the newly reelected president embraces.

Signed by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862, the Morrill Act had for several years been championed by Republican Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont. Morrill’s vision for land-grant colleges had a vocational purpose. In contrast to the classical liberal-arts education that was offered to the well-to-do few, the new land-grant colleges he envisioned would prepare students for the practical work of the Industrial Age, what Morrill labeled “the Agriculture and Mechanic Arts” (from which we get the “A&M” that follows the names of a good number of our state universities).

Morrill initially faced opposition to his efforts from a high—indeed, the highest—source, the U.S. Constitution, which places the responsibility for education overwhelmingly with the states, under their “police power.” “Police” derives from the ancient Greek term polis, which was the name for what is often designated today as the “city-state” model of government of Greek antiquity. The police power refers to the right of states to enact legislation in the areas of safety, health, welfare, and morals, providing the basis for laws in areas as diverse as zoning, alcohol regulation, and public education, among others. 

Given its tension with the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, Merrill’s initial effort to marshal federal support for state colleges and universities failed during the administration of President James Buchanan. That it succeeded under Buchanan’s successor, Lincoln, owes not simply to the effect of the Civil War but also, and more importantly, to the fact that the Act as finally approved retained the utmost fidelity to the Tenth Amendment through what can be labeled the “land equivalent” of block granting federal support to the states. Effectively, there were only two stipulations governing the Morrill Act’s offer of 30,000 acres of land per congressman (over 17 million acres total): (1) the state could not be in rebellion against theUnited States, and (2) the land had to be used, in Morrill’s words, to help establish a "college in every State” that would be “accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil.” Apart from these constraints, the administration of the higher-education programs begun by Morrill was left entirely where it should be under our constitutional form of government—with the states.

Of course, in the course of the century-and-a-half since the Act was passed, the federal government has become exponentially more intrusive. From the New Deal, to the Great Society, to Jimmy Carter’s creation of the Department of Education, federal intervention in the provision of public higher education has rendered the Tenth Amendment all but a dead letter.

Nevertheless, the Tenth Amendment should be resuscitated as part of our effort to breathe new life into our fiscal-cliff-approaching economy. We currently spend $1.76 billion on salaries for staff at the Department of Education. All of these dollars could be saved through returning to the block-grant approach to higher education established by Morrill and Lincoln.

Mitt Romney publicly embraced the Morrill precedent during the October 3rd debate. Commenting on federal involvement in higher education, he remarked, “Overhead is overwhelming,” and insisted that we “get those dollars back to the states.”

President Obama, as he searches for common ground with Republicans in order to avoid the approaching fiscal cliff, would do well to adopt this plank from his defeated challenger’s platform. As America struggles to free itself from an historic amount of national debt, block grants such as this will prove indispensable. Equally important, through returning constitutionally mandated power over higher education to each state, every state stands to benefit. In the fifty “laboratories” of democracy engendered by federalism, more effective approaches to the challenge of providing affordable higher education are likelier to emerge.

In the big picture—and regardless of whether the president or his Republican opponent had won the election—it has become clear to all that the higher-education status quo has become intolerable for students and their parents. We need new approaches. In the last 25 years, college tuitions have skyrocketed 440 percent, far ahead of the rate of inflation. Attempting to keep up with these price increases, students and their parents have engaged in an historic level of borrowing. Student-loan debt now stands at a crushing $1 trillion, which for the first time in our history surpasses total credit-card debt.

Block granting higher-education funds to the states promises both a better return on the taxpayers’ dollar and a long-needed return to the original constitutional division of powers between the states and the federal government. The time for both is now, and the newly reelected president is well-positioned to accomplish this.

Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served as Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during President George W. Bush’s second term.