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Delaney: Morrill Anniversary

03/27/12 5:55PM By Dennis Delaney
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(Host) Commentator Dennis Delaney is a former Republican State Senator. Recently, he's been thinking about the cost of a college education, and Vermonter Justin Morrill, founder of the nation's land grant colleges and universities.

(Delaney) Vermont is a small state yet the contributions of our citizens to the nation are many and often outstanding. One such is the Morrill Act, authored by Vermonter and United States Senator Justin Smith Morrill in 1862. President Abraham Lincoln signed it and this year marks the Act's 150th anniversary.

Justin Morrill's vision was of a nation in which the federal government would endow colleges and universities with land grants. There are 70 some today. The University of Vermont is one. But Senator Morrill also strove to move higher education away from the prevalent and purely classical Liberal Arts curriculum. He envisioned at least one university in each state established, he wrote "upon a sure and perpetual foundation accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil, where all of needful science for the practical avocations shall be taught." The new focus then, for the land grant institutions, was to be on science, agriculture and engineering.

Unwilling to rest on this momentous achievement for a young nation, Justin Morrill enriched his legacy in 1890 with a second Morrill Act - aimed especially at the former confederate states. The Act required that each state show that race was not a criterion for college admission. That Vermonter Justin Morrill fought against racism so long ago might seem surprising, but it shouldn't, since Vermont was the first state to bar slavery in its constitution more than 200 years ago.

But if Justin Morrill could see the state of higher education today, full of barriers and burdens facing today's youth, I'm sure he'd be deeply chagrined. His gift of land grant universities and colleges across a young America in the 19th Century stands in stark contrast to the flood of debt that is overwhelming our young women and men in the 21 st Century.

By the close of 2012, the debt of American college students - what they borrow to become educated - will exceed one trillion dollars. That's more than the collective credit card debt held by all Americans. We're suffocating in a debt culture that today's youth and their families have bought into, though it's one that Justin Morrill would surely not recognize.

Many of our youth are trapped in life altering debt, a trap which holds them for much of their productive years, if not for life. I recently saw a political cartoon in which some folks were standing at the grave of someone who had died at age 87. The comment was: "And she had almost paid off her student loans."

One hundred and fifty years ago Justin Smith Morrill was a Vermont visionary who made an important contribution when our country was young. We're a middle aged nation now but we still need visionaries like Justin Morrill. Our youth, our tomorrows, need them.
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