150 Years of Higher Education: New Challenges and Opportunities

June 28, 2012

In the 150 years since the passage of the Morrill Act, which donated public lands and designated revenue to states to establish public universities that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts, an undergraduate degree has become essential in today’s job market. Paying for a college degree, however, has also become out of reach for many. With student loan debt continuing to rise, high costs have discouraged many who plan to attend college and fear a huge debt burden upon graduation.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities recently held the 150 Years of the Morrill Act: Advancing the Legacy conference to consider ways to continue the law’s original objectives. Students, professors and higher education officials focused on how to make public colleges more accessible by keeping costs down and using technology to engage and educate students.

Big Name Speakers

A procession of notable speakers spoke at Tuesday’s conference, including Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stated that cuts in state funding for higher education are placing the cost burden on students, which leads to rising loan debt. According to Gates, federal funding efforts to offset these rising costs are unsustainable. By restructuring the aid schools do have and prioritizing need-based financial aid, this will provide incentives for schools to raise completion rates.

Igniting an Interest in STEM Fields

Colleges must also provide more financial aid to students who enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields that are commonly being outsourced. Public schools must foster an interest in STEM fields if we are to compete globally. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed that American students often do not have an interest in STEM disciplines and lag behind the rest of the world in STEM degree attainment.

Duncan believes that states need to maintain their funding and colleges must keep tuition low to decrease student debt. Duncan also added that by embracing the three-year degree and making transferring from a community college easier, students can also save a significant amount of money.

STEM study in Elementary and Secondary School

To promote agricultural and mechanical edcuation, a main tenet of the Morrill Act, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said his agency is encouraging young students to pursue STEM study. The department is working with groups such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America to encourage more agriculture-oriented STEM research among elementary and secondary school students. Vilsack also said the department must market agricultural research and make it more appealing to attract young students to these fields.

The conference stressed the need to make college more attainable and affordable. By slowing the rising costs of tuition, America can greatly improve in all areas of business and technology and compete on a global level.

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