Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality

Books drawn on for this article

Peter Stackpole/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
Members of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the United States, early 1950s

Death may be the great equalizer, but Americans have long believed that during this life “the spread of education would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.” These words come from Horace Mann, whose goal was to establish primary schooling for all children—no small ambition when he announced it in 1848. Others had already raised their sights higher. As early as 1791, exulting in the egalitarian mood of the new republic, one writer declared it “a scandal to civilized society that part only of the citizens should be sent to colleges and universities.”1

How that part has grown is a stirring story. It begins in the colonial period with church-funded scholarships for the sons of poor families. It continued after the Revolution with the founding of public universities such as those of North Carolina and Virginia. In the midst of the Civil War, it was advanced by the Morrill Act, by which Congress set aside federal land for establishing “land-grant” colleges, many of which became institutions of great distinction. By the later nineteenth century, when most colleges still admitted only white men, the cause was advanced again by the creation of new colleges for women and African-Americans.

In the twentieth century the pace quickened. The GI Bill (officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) encouraged veterans to continue their education by giving them money for tuition and living expenses, and helped to drive up college graduation rates among American males from 100,000 per year in 1940 to 300,000 in 1950. Amid cold war anxiety about a “brain race” with the Soviet Union, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 extended benefits such as graduate fellowships to women, and the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 included a “Work-Study” program providing eligible students with campus jobs. When the HEA was reauthorized in 1972, grants for low-income students were added—known today as Pell grants in honor of their principal sponsor, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island.

Some of these measures were promoted by Republicans, others by Democrats, and all commanded a degree of bipartisan support that in retrospect seems remarkable. Moreover, they were effective. The number of Americans between ages twenty-five and twenty-nine holding a four-year college degree rose from one in twenty in 1940 to one in four by 1977. And if the federal government did much to make this happen, the states did more. Led by California, which virtually guaranteed college access to every high school graduate, many states committed themselves to providing high-quality public education at low cost.

All these strategies had in common one basic motive: to bring college within reach of those for whom it would be otherwise unattainable. In 1817, a North Carolina jurist called for “some…

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