Last week (July 2) colleges celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, which allowed states to create numerous public colleges across the country.

It was sort of an awkward celebration because it hasn’t worked out so smoothly. In part this has to do with the fact that the great promise of the Morrill Acts, to provide inexpensive education to all who qualified, is frustratingly elusive. According to an opinion article by Fred Brown in the Denver Post:

That practical approach is what the Morrill Act was intended to achieve: education for farmers and the “industrial classes” instead of the old European model of a finishing school for the elite.

But students are paying more and more for that education as state support of higher education declines. Colorado State University president [Tony] Frank said it’s now at around 12 percent for his school. On average almost three-fourths of the cost of a college education today is borne by the student (or the student’s parents). When Frank got his veterinary medicine degree in 1980, he paid only 20 percent of actual costs.

The Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of federal land. Sale of this land would allow states to create or embellish colleges. States, in turn, would then operate (and fund) these colleges to provide training for residents in “agriculture and the mechanic arts” (That’s why some of those colleges have the A&M tag).

The federal government performed its obligation long ago. It seems that since then, the states haven’t really been meeting their end of the bargain. As states reduce their support, colleges saddle students with more debt. Some 62 percent of public university students now graduate in debt. The average loan burden is $20,200.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer