In 1862, Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. This bold and pioneering legislation launched a process of democratizing higher education across the United States.
It established a network of public land grant universities that would offer higher education access to young people not being served by the few existing private universities whose mission was to educate wealthy young men.
The 150-year legacy of the Morrill Act has helped open the doors of U.S. higher education to growing numbers of talented people in our society, whatever their socioeconomic circumstances. It was re-affirmed with the establishment of such programs as the G.I. Bill after the World War II and, later, federal financial aid (Pell Grants).
It prepared this country for the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and, more recently, for our growing global economic competitiveness and quality of life.
In the 21st century, the spirit of democratization of higher education is alive and well on many public university campuses across the country, especially those in large urban areas where institutions like UTEP are taking the Morrill Act legacy to the next level.
We are educating low-income and minority students, segments of the population most seriously underrepresented in U.S. colleges and universities.
Sadly, however, this steadfast investment in building the human resource foundation upon which this country’s prosperity has solidly rested has begun to erode, as public — especially state — support for higher education has declined, and cost burdens have been shifted to students.
The consequences are sobering. In 2012, only 11 percent of students in the bottom quartile of the U.S. family income scale earned bachelor’s degrees, compared to 79 percent in the top income quartile. Education has been the most powerful driver of this country’s success.
Yet, as a nation, we now appear to be questioning its value and wavering in our willingness to invest in it.
UTEP has worked hard to serve as a counter-example to these national trends.
Grounded in our strong conviction that talent is found in all ZIP codes, validated by our students’ stellar achievements, and driven by our commitment to provide the educational excellence that all students have every right to expect, UTEP’s access and excellence mission has become a national model.
We are particularly proud that we have found strategies to contain costs, minimize tuition increases and ensure affordability for our students.
In fact, UTEP’s annual “net price” of $2,466 (total cost of attendance — tuition, fees, books and other expenses — minus financial aid and scholarships) is the lowest of all U.S. research universities.
Sen. Morrill and President Lincoln had a lot to worry about in 1862. They might have been persuaded to concentrate resources on the extraordinarily difficult and immediate challenges facing this deeply divided nation. Instead, they looked boldly toward the future, placed their bets on the talent and motivation of this country’s people, and invested in public higher education.
That is exactly what we must do today: re-energize the American Dream and re-commit to creating higher education opportunities for all talented Americans. In 2012, this investment in education will determine our future — just as it did in 1862.
Dr. Diana Natalicio is president of The University of Texas at El Paso.
[This column was originally published in the El Paso Times, August 26, 2012]
Diana S. Natalicio is the president of The University of Texas at El Paso.