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Debating Higher Ed


Michael David Cohen, author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War, has a piece in the New York Times describing the sometimes-strange fates of college campuses during the war between North and South. You may read it here.

In the piece below, written for the Press blog, Cohen considers the first presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney. Paying special attention to the two candidates' positions on what role the university should play in American life, he looks back at an earlier era in the evolving story of higher ed...

In their first presidential debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent several minutes discussing K-12 education. They agreed on the need for a federal role, including at least some elements of Obama’s Race to the Top program, but disagreed on whether to distribute federal funds to states or, as Romney proposed as a way to promote school choice, to individual students. But beyond brief references to the value of community colleges, the challenge of paying tuition, and the difficulty of finding jobs after graduation, the candidates said little about higher education.

A month ago, however, both parties approved platforms that outline their positions on higher education. Among other disagreements, they diverge on the basic role of college in America. The Democratic platform stresses the importance of “keep[ing] college within reach for every student” and of achieving the world’s highest college-graduation rate. The Republican platform, by contrast, calls for a greater reliance on other forms of education: “private training schools, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector.”

The Republicans are the reformers here. Americans have long considered college key to entering the middle class. Given today’s economic crisis, Romney’s party is proposing an alternative and (it hopes) more affordable option: non-degree institutions or workplace training as preparation for good jobs.

That’s what used to happen. A century and a half ago, Americans entering most fields never went to college. They learned their skills in independent professional schools or on the job. It was amid another crisis that educators began shifting job training into colleges. Back then, too, politicians helped drive the change.

Before the Civil War broke out in 1861, higher education played a limited role in American life. Only about 1 percent of Americans went to college. Most went to prepare for careers as doctors, lawyers, ministers, or teachers. In the South, planters’ children also went as part of their cultural upbringing. The college curriculum, which emphasized the classical languages and mathematics, provided little in the way of practical knowledge for aspiring professionals or landowners. Indeed, many of them—including the lawyer Abraham Lincoln—skipped college. But it did provide a level of respectability that appealed to Americans aiming for those careers.

The rest of the U.S. population had no reason to go to college. Farmers, engineers, and miners learned their trades in independent vocational schools—degrees in these fields didn’t exist—or, more often, on the job. Even doctors and lawyers, whether they had attended college or not, usually learned the skills of their professions in separate medical or law schools or through apprenticeships. (Many Americans, including blacks held in slavery and poor whites who needed to work from an early age, could not have gone to college even if they had wanted to. Some women did go, though outside the Midwest they usually were confined to separate, all-female colleges.)

The Civil War challenged the old system. Male students left to join the armies. Some women left to become battlefield nurses. The Union and the Confederacy even took over some campuses for military use. South Carolina College, for example, became a Confederate hospital. The University of Missouri served the Union as everything from stables to a prison.

Occupations brought physical damage. At Missouri, prisoners cut holes in the floor while trying to escape and soldiers traded away library books for whiskey. Cumberland University in Tennessee fared much worse: after being occupied by Union troops, it was burned to the ground by Confederate ones.

When the war ended in 1865, colleges tried to return to normal. That was relatively easy in the North, where most colleges had stayed open and few had suffered physical damage. It was harder in the South. Many Southern colleges, even if not in ruins, had closed during the war. South Carolina College had not held a class in nearly three years; the University of Missouri had operated only part of each year. These schools could not simply reopen their gates and continue as before. They needed to repair or rebuild damaged facilities.

Worse yet, Southern colleges needed to attract students in a depression. Planters’ children and prospective professionals had gone to college before the war to gain respectability. But with the elite’s wealth drained—currency was inflated, land was devalued, and human property had ceased to exist—few Southerners could now afford an education that didn’t bring concrete economic benefits.

Educators responded by envisioning colleges—or “universities,” as they increasingly called them—that taught a variety of practical subjects. Farmers and engineers, teachers and miners, doctors and lawyers would all enroll in the universities to learn the skills of their vocations. But creating these programs would require money. Colleges’ coffers had been depleted by wartime inflation; high tuition would have kept students away. Colleges had to do more, charge less, and find money elsewhere.

Enter the government. Most Southern states had created state colleges before the Civil War. Few, however, had given them significant funding. Most had left them to operate and raise money on their own. After the war, that model no longer worked. With potential students poor and reforms necessary, colleges needed public funding.

Daniel Read, recently offered the presidency of the University of Missouri, described the problem candidly. Appearing before the Missouri legislature in 1867, he reminded the lawmakers of the university’s “dilapidated” condition and of their history of “doing nothing whatever for it.” Unless that changed, he said, the school had no hope and he would turn down the job. With state funding, however, he could build it into a true university.

Read’s strategy worked. The legislature established an annual appropriation for the university. Read accepted the presidency and created new schools of agriculture and engineering, mining and metallurgy, teaching, law, and medicine. A few years later the legislature increased funding and cut in-state tuition in half. Students poured in. Thanks to state support and curricular reform, college had become appealing and affordable.

Across the South colleges and governments partnered to diversify curricula and reduce tuition. Colleges made these reforms in order to survive. Politicians supported them for several reasons: commitment to equal opportunity, state pride (it looked bad if one state’s students had to go to another state’s university), and an incipient belief that college was the best place to learn a variety of jobs. (As they made a college education useful to more people, some state universities even admitted students whom they previously had categorically excluded: women and, in Arkansas and South Carolina, African Americans. Sadly, within a few years legislators chose again to exclude blacks.)

State legislators were not the only politicians promoting university vocational training. In 1862, Congress passed and Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant College Act. Obama actually mentioned this law in the debate. It offered states (including former Confederate states once they re-entered the Union) federal land to sell. The proceeds would support colleges teaching agriculture, engineering, military tactics, and the liberal arts. Every state took advantage of the law. Some gave the money to private colleges such as Cornell University in New York. Others, including Missouri, combined it with state tax income to fund the development of state universities.

Civil War–era support for the expansion of collegiate training was not confined to one party. Both Republicans and Democrats voted for the Morrill Act. States controlled by both parties funded state universities and accepted federal money for agricultural colleges. Colleges’ success at attracting students in the new fields varied—most Americans, after all, were unaccustomed to attending college—but by 1890, 36 percent of earned first degrees (excluding those at all-female colleges) were in vocational subjects.

The trend continued in the twentieth century. Colleges further diversified their offerings, high school graduation rates rose, and the G.I. Bill of 1944 enabled millions of veterans to enroll in college. College has now become a highly desired, if not expected, part of life for middle-class Americans. The census shows that enrollment in college and graduate school is now greater than the country’s population aged 18 to 22. The road here began amid the Civil War, when politicians and educators turned to college as a new place to train Americans for jobs. Now a new group of leaders must decide whether the economic crisis demands a reversal of that change.

Michael David Cohen is assistant research professor of history at the University of Tennessee and the author of the new book Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War.