The latest news reports show wealthy and famous parents walking into courthouses to face fraud charges related to their efforts to get their children admitted into elite colleges. The college admissions scandal has left many Americans wondering if their students even have a chance in a system that appears to be rigged.
As chancellor of one of the nation’s leading land-grant universities, I can confidently state that the system is not rigged.
Despite the breathtaking audacity of those involved in the scandal, it’s important to remember that the majority of higher education institutions are intently focused on ensuring public access to a high-quality education.
This is particularly true for America’s land-grant institutions. The Morrill Act, passed by Congress in 1862, set aside land in each state to build and fund public universities. It was a revolutionary idea at a time when college or university was reserved for a privileged elite.
The Morrill Act set out the purpose of these institutions “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” It opened the power of higher education to the masses.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we have lived our land-grant commitment to affordable access to the highest quality public education for 150 years. Many people associate Nebraska with our historically strong athletic program.
And, yes, we are all proud Huskers. In our case, the Huskers’ athletic success supports our commitment to academic access. Our new Husker Scholars Program, enabled by $5 million in annual scholarship funding from our Athletic Department, is providing support to 3,068 of our students under five new scholarship programs. Of these students, 40 percent are first-generation college students, and 65 percent have identified high financial need.
There have also been recent national news reports that universities are pulling back from recruiting in rural areas. That is not true at the University of Nebraska and many of our fellow land-grant institutions. We actively recruit in every Nebraska high school every year, no matter the size and just added additional admissions staff to specifically reach out to rural students and parents.
In 2006, we developed a highly successful Nebraska College Preparatory Academy to increase the number of college-bound first-generation, low-income students – and to help them succeed in college. The results speak volumes – with a graduation rate of 89 percent.
And lest anyone think that “access,” “public education,” and “excellence” cannot exist in the same sentence – Nebraska has been home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship winners and patent-earning inventors.
Our graduates have cured diseases, cracked genomes, created the first computer animation, perfected the late-night talk show genre and built companies like Berkshire Hathaway. Our century-leading physics team has produced the brightest laser light on earth, brighter than a billion suns – with the potential to detect dirty bombs under layers of concrete. These examples only begin to scratch the surface.
At a time when higher education is again under attack for elitism, we should recall the bold thinking of Congress and President Abraham Lincoln when they created our land-grant university system with a mission of educating the working class. At UNL, we proudly carry this as part of our legacy.