The Democratization of Higher Education

The Democratization of Higher Education: Introduction


There is a growing disquiet in the United States regarding the accessibility of higher education.  As tuition and fees continue to grow faster than the rate of inflation, a college education is becoming harder for middle-class students to achieve.  This series will attempt to put the issue of accessibility into historical context.  We will do this by looking at four specific turning points in the accessibility of education:  the origins of the land-grant universities, the GI Bill, the Reagan-era and subsequent cuts in government spending, and a look at the future of higher education.


Everyone agrees that tuition at America’s colleges and universities has grown at a tremendous rate, far outstripping salary growth.  There are a number of factors that have affected this rise, but one of the largest is that states have slashed funding to public universities.  This means that students and parents have resorted to taking out ever more loans.  Current estimates put the national student at $1 trillion.  


In this election season, one thing that all parties seem to agree on is that providing an affordable higher education to the middle class is a valid goal of government.  President Obama states, “If we want America to lead in the 21st century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible — from the day they start preschool to the day they start their career.”    Governor Romney’s five-point plan includes the goal, “Provide access to affordable and effective higher education options.”  


The question of whether and how much the government should contribute to the higher education of its citizens is one that has been debated since the antebellum period.  The education debate now reflects questions like populism vs. elitism, tradition vs. modernism, and public vs. private good that have deep roots.  A look into some of the important historical turning points in American higher education can help us to put current debates into perspective.


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