The passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 was a defining moment for public education in America. The legislation, named for Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont, established a system of land-grant colleges.
According to Cornell University Professor of Government Suzanne Mettler, the law “created a new educational model that combined traditional liberal-arts education with training in agriculture, the natural sciences, and teaching.”
Mettler says that by opening the fields of study, colleges began reaching out to a broader segment of the public.
The country built upon the Morrill Act over the years by creating black colleges and passing the GI Bill so WWII veterans could attend college. All the while, the federal government and states heavily subsidized the schools.
The reason for the significant taxpayer subsidy was two-fold: it was consistent with the belief that society benefits on multiple levels with a better educated population and it kept tuition and fees low so more students had a chance to attend.
West Virginia University has been a perfect example of the benefits of the Morrill Act. The land-grant institution offers degrees from Accounting to World Languages in 17 distinct colleges and schools. The University opens its doors wide for aspiring students, even if they don’t meet the highest academic standards.
Historically, WVU has been an incredible bargain. However, that’s changing.
Last week, the WVU Board of Governors approved yet another increase in tuition and fees—eight percent for in-state students and four percent for out-of-state. For the upcoming academic year, West Virginia students will pay nearly $7,000 a year just to get in the door, before books and living expenses, while non-residents will pay about $20,000.
For in-state students that translates into a 77 percent increase in just ten years (from $3,938 for 2004-2005 to $6,968 for 2014-2015) and a 69 percent increase for out-of-state students ($12,060 for 2004-2005 to $20,424 for 2014-2015).
Tuition and fees at WVU have risen three times the rate of inflation over that period.
A critical factor in the dramatic increase has been a corresponding decline in state support. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the share of the University’s revenue from the state has dropped from 61 percent in 1987 to 34 percent in 2012.
WVU is not alone in this conundrum. Mettler reports, “The vast network of state universities and community colleges continues to enroll 73 percent of all college students, but between 1990-91 and 2009, state governments decreased funding for them by an average of 26 percent in real terms—even as operating costs increased.”
One result is that students have to take on more college loans. The Project on Student Debt reports that the average debt for a WVU graduate in 2012 was nearly $28,000.
What’s the solution? The options include more grant programs, leaner institutions, the community college route for some students, more on-line courses and increasing pressure on government to invest more in higher education, to name a few.
It’s evident, however, that the historic alliance between state supported schools and the state itself, one whose roots date back to the 18th century, is becoming strained.
In the meantime, WVU remains a good investment for students, at least those who apply themselves and take full advantage of what WVU has to offer; it’s just not the bargain it once was.