Almost 150 years ago, in an effort to better serve a growing nation, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which gave struggling states federal land with which they could generate revenue to build colleges. The result of that bold action is a national resource: a structure for higher education that is admired, and copied, around the globe in places such as Japan, Germany and Canada. We are the only country to have both private and public universities of world renown. Sadly, this amalgam of great public and private research and teaching universities is at risk as economically struggling states progressively disinvest in public higher education. ...
[O]over several decades there has been a material and progressive disinvestment by states in higher education. The economic crisis has made this a countrywide phenomenon, with devastating cuts in some states, including California. Historically acclaimed public institutions are struggling to remain true to their mission as tuitions rise and in-state students from middle- and low-income families are displaced by out-of-state students from higher socioeconomic brackets who pay steeper fees. While America is fortunate to have many great private universities, we do not need to add to the list by privatizing Berkeley, Illinois, Rutgers, etc. On the contrary, we need to keep our public research and teaching universities excellent and accessible to the vast majority of Americans.
Given the precarious condition of state finances, we propose that President Obama emulate President Lincoln by creating a 21st-century version of the Morrill Act.
Specifically, the federal government should create a hybrid model in which a limited number of our great public research and teaching universities receive basic operating support from the federal government and their respective state governments. Washington might initially choose a representative set of schools, perhaps based on their research achievements, their success in graduating students, commitment to public service and their record in having a student body that is broadly representative of society.
Washington would provide sufficient additional funding for operations and student support to ensure broad access and continued excellence at these universities. A portion of these resources would ensure that out-of-state and in-state students pay the same tuition and have access to the same financial aid packages. The combined federal-state funding must be sufficient for these universities to maintain their preeminence as well as charge moderate fees to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Philanthropy must continue to be an important resource. To ensure stability, the federal government should agree to match, at a rate of 2-to-1, and the state government at 1-to-1, private endowment funds raised by these public universities for 10 years. If such a public-private partnership raised private philanthropy of $150 million per year, the university would have $6 billion contributed toward a new endowment at the end of 10 years. The payout from this new federal-state endowment would provide operating and other support such as need-based scholarships and would essentially secure excellence and access for a generation.