Education is a public benefit as critical to the common good as any other — military defense, public health, law and order. It’s not a luxury, but one of the first orders of business a country should attend to in order to achieve stability, security and prosperity.

Recognizing this, a Vermonter, U.S. Rep. (and later, U.S. Sen.) Justin Morrill, crafted the Land Grant College Act, which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law on July 2, 1862. It represented the country’s first significant commitment on a national scale to higher education. Each state was awarded 30,000 acres of federal land, not necessarily within its own borders, for every senator and representative in its congressional delegation. These lands could be used, or sold, to support a designated “land-grant” college or university.

The very concept of a “national-scale” anything was constrained, at that time, by the Civil War, but a second Morrill Act, in 1890, spread its benefits throughout the reunited states and U.S. territories. In Vermont, the entity selected to receive those funds — and to exercise the responsibilities of a land-grant institution — was UVM, which was chartered as a private university in 1791.

The land-grant program had two primary purposes: to more equitably spread the benefits of higher education to people of ordinary means (notably, the “sons of toil”), and to instruct in the “needful science for the practical avocations of life.” The country was in the early stages of transition from rural to urban, and so, training in agriculture and the “mechanical arts,” particularly, were targeted. This reflected the country’s awareness that creating an educated citizenry was a matter of profound importance.

A century and a half later, it’s questionable whether that understanding persists. Our commitment to elementary and secondary public-school education, tumultuous though it is, continues. For college education, though, it’s another matter. The U.S. probably hosts the best aggregation of colleges and universities in the world, but a disconnect has set in between the costs of attending those institutions and students’ ability to pay.

Some cities subsidize post-secondary education to a degree (their assistance often is limited to, for example, students with high SAT scores or those pursuing two-year associate degrees). The support that states provide to their state university and college systems varies widely. On a per-Vermont-resident student (full-time equivalent) basis, Vermont’s expenditures, unfortunately, rank among the nation’s lowest.

UVM President Thomas Sullivan explained in a 2016 magazine article that a driving factor behind the university’s ambitious capital campaign was to finance improvements in its buildings and academic resources to attract more out-of-state and foreign students. But it’s a tough neighborhood; Sullivan described New England — with its Harvards, Yales, Dartmouths and MITs, and on a smaller scale, prestigious colleges like Williams, Bennington and Middlebury — as the most competitive region for post-secondary institutions in the U.S.

Yet, almost paradoxically, even while academic institutions vie for their attendance, working- and middle-class students are accumulating extraordinary college debt. Forbes reported that in 2018, student debt had reached $1.52 trillion — a burden for some 44 million young Americans. Their annual earning capacity, on average, is about $17,500 greater in the first decade or so after graduation than that of their non-college-educated peers, but monthly payments and debt service can erode much of that difference. Forbes also reported a 10.7 percent default-or-delinquency rate on those college loans, raising the specter of an enduring black mark on the credit ratings of some 4 million students as they seek to find their place in the world.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has long advocated making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students from low- and moderate-income families. Conservative critics during his 2016 presidential campaign, their view constricted by ideological blinders, accused him of kowtowing to voters by promising to “give things away.” However, a country serious about its own survival would not price education out of reach of the masses.

This is the environment that Vermont’s small, often intimate, frequently imaginative, and by necessity creative, private colleges find themselves in as they seek to survive, prosper and teach in the most academically competitive region of the country.

Spurred in part by the challenges facing higher education in Vermont — and made more imminent by the announcement that Green Mountain College in Poultney is closing this spring — this newspaper will launch a series of commentaries under the title “Vermont By Degrees” in its weekend edition, which will include voices from knowledgeable professionals that will explore the hardships and the path ahead for our state’s academic institutions.

We’re eager to learn from them, because we’ve somehow let the principles that guided Justin Morrill get away from us. It’s likely to take both innovation and radical reform to correct our course.

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