Public Release: 

New version of 150-year-old law could ease student debt and college funding cutbacks

American Chemical Society

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 21, 2012 -- Members of a panel today commemorating the 150th anniversary of federal legislation that transformed college education for people in the 19th and 20th centuries said that a 21st century counterpart to the Morrill Act of 1862 could ease the staggering load of student debt and help colleges and universities cope with state funding cutbacks.

"A 21st century Morrill Act would be a wonderful symbolic and tangible move toward reinvesting in public higher education," Amy Bix, Ph.D., said in an interview prior to her presentation at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The meeting of ACS, the world's largest scientific society, continues through Thursday and will include almost 8,600 reports on new advances in science and other topics.

"It would come at a time when the federal government and many states have dramatically reduced their funding of colleges, and when students worry more than ever about being able to afford college without drowning in debt."

Bix, who is with Iowa State University, located in the first state to embrace the Morrill Act, spoke at a symposium commemorating the legislation, which Abraham Lincoln signed in 1862. The law established the so-called land grant system of colleges and universities, with a focus not just on classical studies, but on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering. Companion legislation in 1890 led to the establishment of land grant institutions for African-Americans. The more than 100 institutions with land grant status today produce more than half of the country's Ph.D. scientists and engineers.

Panelists in the ACS symposium ranked the Morrill Act near the GI Bill ― which provided college education for 2.2 million veterans of World War II ― in importance in defining higher education in the United States. "The Morrill Act established higher education as a fundamental American objective and provided the means (at the time) to achieve it," explained Alan Marcus, Ph.D., of Mississippi State University. "It enabled children from all walks of life to develop their minds and receive various kinds of technical training and intellectual skills. It made education and especially the acquisition and implementation of knowledge as appropriate objectives and as ways to improve America. Its locus in the states made experimentation easy and common. The act has heralded a century-long era of unrivaled intellectual and economic prosperity."

Panelists said there are opportunities for a recommitment to those principles.

"One would involve legislation that lifts much of the financial burden of higher education from the shoulders of middle class and working people," said Stephen J. Weininger, Ph.D., of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the symposium's organizers. "The struggle to pay off college debt is having serious consequences for the entire country, not just those in debt, because of the many negative incentives it generates. The country needs a well-educated work force; staggering college debt is a major hindrance to that goal."

Estimates suggest that the number of students who have to go into debt to get a bachelor's degree has risen from 45 percent in 1993 to 94 percent today. There is now more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. Over the last 10 years, tuition and fees at state schools have increased 72 percent, while this year, national, state and local spending on higher education reached a 25-year low. After decades of steady growth, state funding to higher education has dropped by 15 percent since 2008.

Another panelist, Gary Schuster, Ph.D., of Georgia Tech, foresees opportunities for a new-era Morrill Act to foster innovation.

"Both faculty and students in the higher education community in the United States represent an immense wealth of creativity, innovative power and ambition," Schuster said. "With the current higher education system, however, there are not many regularly available mechanisms designed to harness that energy, hone it and channel it to the next steps. I have in mind something like a 'micro angel fund' that makes relatively modest financial investments in student-led efforts with the primary objective being to educate students and their faculty advisors about real-world mechanisms for the transformation of invention to innovation. Such a fund could be advised by investment professionals who help to establish the funding criteria. This effort should not be judged by its success in bringing innovative products to market, but in its ability to inform and inspire young people by providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue their entrepreneurial and innovative dreams throughout their lifetimes." Just as the Morrill Act helped provide a trained workforce for the industrialization of America, enabling education in entrepreneurship will provide the fuel for a revolution in creativity.

The symposium is among the special presidential events here sponsored by ACS President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, Ph.D., who has called on the society's 164,000 members to work as scientist‑citizens in solving great global challenges of the 21st century. "We face challenges such as surging population growth, limited natural resources, malnutrition, disease, climate change, violence and war, and the denial of basic human rights," Shakhashiri explained.

"We can look to the past in solving challenges in the future. The Morrill Act transformed American higher education for people in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it may help instruct us on how to do the same in the 21st century."


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Below are abstracts of presentations in the symposium:


Chemical Laboratory Instruction, Democratic Ideals and Mass Education in Midwestern Land-Grant Colleges, 1870-1914
Stephen J Weininger, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The inclusion of laboratory exercises for undergraduate students was a major innovation in 19th-century chemical pedagogy. This program reached the US from Liebig's laboratory in mid-century via German-trained American instructors and translated laboratory manuals. It was particularly welcomed in the new, democratically-minded mid-western land-grant colleges. These colleges initially had small enrollments, underprepared students and a lack of many material and human resources. The Liebig laboratory program therefore underwent substantial modification, especially after college enrollments began to soar around 1890. Using data from representative institutions, I will describe how homegrown lab manuals and modified curricula accommodated changing local circumstances. Most land-grant institutions were coeducational when founded or soon thereafter. Their strong emphasis on science meant that female and male students studied science together, at least in beginning subjects. The talk will conclude with a brief overview of the numbers and career pathways of the early women students and alumnae.

Chemistry under the Morrill Act: Agency through Service
Professor Alan Marcus, Mississippi State University

The Morrill Act was to open higher education to the vast mass of American citizens. Most land grants initially offered a broad spectrum of courses but agriculture quickly dominated. College chemists initially found favor by aiding farmers. They analyzed fertilizers to guarantee quality and milk for butterfat content. These technical successes established chemists as vital and led states and the federal government to support original chemical/life-science experiments. A varied agenda emerged: soil chemistry, vitamins, pharmaceuticals, principles of nutrition, chemotherapy and antibiosis. By the 1920s, the integration of chemistry within the land grant nexus was complete and most land grants formed free standing chemistry departments.

Chemurgy and Biotechnology at the Land Grant Colleges: Bridging Agriculture, Industry, and Chemistry in the 1930s and Beyond
Mark Finlay, Armstrong Atlantic State University

Since the origins of the Morrill Act, land grant scientists have engaged in multiple strategies to connect agriculture with the mechanical arts. Following a long history of agricultural chemistry in service to farmers, the "chemurgy" movement emerged in the 1930s as an explicit effort to have land grant chemists and chemical engineers work in the service of industry. "Chemurgists" sought and promoted the industrial of use of agricultural raw materials on the macro-level, such as motor fuel from corn and Jerusalem artichokes, starch from sweet potatoes, plastics from sawmill wastes, and much more. Although the chemurgy movement faded as the economic and wartime crises of the 1930s and 1940s passed, the search for industrial applications of biobased materials continued, focused in the postwar era on the micro-level search for valuable components within farm products. As the current passion for biotechnology suggests, efforts to build bridges between agriculture and science and industry have continued into the twenty-first century.

Catalyst or Synthesis? The Rise of Chemical Engineering in the Land Grant College System
Professor Robert W. Seidel, University of Minnesota

Chemical engineering originated in land-grant colleges in the early 20th century as a result of the recognition of the need for trained personnel in the nascent chemical industry of the United States. MIT, Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin and other land-grant colleges initiated contacts with leading firms in that industry, imported techniques using consulting, interning, and other forms of personnel exchange to import knowledge which they then disseminated outside of industrial channels. Among the most important patrons of chemical engineering were members of the DuPont family and George Eastman at MIT, although local industries and agricultural interests fostered innovation in many other land-grant colleges where the new discipline was instituted. The rise of the car culture stimulated others to seize upon petroleum as the process of choice for the renovation of their departments. Chemical engineering escaped its industrial captivity when it became a true engineering science in the 1950s, after the development of new technologies in the government sector during World War II put a greater premium on mathematics and the physical sciences. The prestige of the discipline suffered, however, when Bhopal and other industrial disasters discredited international conglomerates like Union Carbide.

Chemistry, Cooking, Animal Science, and Airplanes: Women in Land-Grant Science and Engineering
Dr. Amy Bix, Iowa State University

American education in science and engineering has a gendered history. Nineteenth-century women's colleges graduated scores of chemistry, biology, and other science majors, but female employment and professional advancement remained limited. Before WWII, schools such as Princeton, Caltech, and Georgia Tech remained primarily all-male. Many in American society considered it inappropriate or odd for women to pursue science seriously. But at land-grant colleges, female faculty developed pioneering home-economics programs, where ideals of domesticity justified teaching women chemistry, physics, nutrition, household-technology. Botany, veterinary medicine, and other land-grant departments gradually opened doors to women. A handful of early-twentieth-century women even entered engineering at Purdue, Iowa State, Cornell, Minnesota, California, and other land-grants. During WWII, land-grants helped both government and industry by training women in airplane design, drafting, explosives manufacturing, and more. Through recent decades, land-grants continued to address issues of gender and education, fostering important ongoing discussions about women, science, and engineering.

The Morrill Act as Prologue to Federal Participation in Higher Education and Research
Gary B. Schuster, Georgia Institute of Technology

The goals of higher education may be divided into four epochs that pivot on the Morrill Act. Before the Morrill Act, higher education was foremost private serving elite citizens. This ended in 1862 when Lincoln, spurred by the industrial revolution and its need for an educated "industrial class", committed the federal government to higher education. The epoch of the industrial revolution ended in 1941 with the start of World War II. After the war, the massification of higher education began with the "G.I. Bill". In response to cold war pressures Congress passed the National Defense Education Act leading to the University-based research infrastructure that exists now. The third epoch ended in 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today we strive to extend the legacy of the Morrill Act and redefine the relevancy of higher education in an epoch of constrained federal resources and shifting national priorities.

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