“…the education of the whole people…”

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it.” John Adams said this a couple of centuries ago.

Around the same time, our friend Thomas Jefferson was looking into the idea of a two-tiered higher education system and in 1779 proposed such, one for the laboring and one for the learned, a form of segregation but better than nothing. It was not adopted. At that time wealthy kids went to Harvard, which was started in 1636, or to Yale, opened in 1702, Princeton in 1746 and other private colleges. Harvard, from almost the beginning, offered money for those who could not afford to attend, although applicants had to have brains to even approach the place, although this was not a large group.

For 20 years in mid-19th-century mid-America, a small, quiet movement worked away to establish agricultural and industrial schools. The idea was a tad progressive, so it wasn’t until 1862 that elected folks took John Adams’ advice seriously. That’s when Congress passed the Morrill Act, establishing land grant colleges with free tuition and free railroad travel for the not-rich. Justin Morrill, Vermont Congressman and eventually U.S. Senator, spent many years working his bill through Congress because he believed, like Adams, that a true democracy must educate everyone and not just those who wanted to be doctors, lawyers and ministers. Land grants in the beginning in the north also accepted women (“domestic arts”) and people of color.

There is at least one land grant institution of higher learning in each state and territory in the country. Iowa State, in Ames, is our land grant college whose duty is “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Industrial classes meant working people: small farmers, small business owners, artisans, laborers, employees of somebody.

These land grant institutions were directed to teach a bit of classical education along with agricultural practices, military tactics and mechanical arts (engineering). In the 150 years since Iowa became the first state to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act, these institutions have taken seriously the demand to be democratic, open and accessible, although they’re no longer free and I don’t imagine too many of them are handy to a railroad depot. To their credit they are now major research centers not just in ag and engineering but in all disciplines.

All to the good if you can figure out how to pay for it. Right now tuition costs $3,424 a semester to attend Iowa State. Merit scholarships recognize high school academic achievements and standardized test scores, and needs-based scholarships examine finance and individual ability to pay for college. Many kids do not fall under either of these financial aids, so they borrow.

“Need money for college? Find a loan in seconds!” This come-on is widely available to needy high school grads. In 2014, about 70 percent of college graduates had accumulated an average of $30,000 worth of debt apiece. College debt is now more than credit card debt or auto loans. Starting out adult life owing as much as your beginning salary means your choices will be affected for decades; you may never get out of debt. It is the modern form of owing your soul to the company store.

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