Carnegie Corporation Calls for Renewed Commitment in Higher Education

New Poll Data: 3 out of 4 Americans Feel Higher Education Should Be a Right. 

On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, Carnegie Corporation of New York released a new national poll which indicates the majority of Americans believe that access to higher education is a right. The poll was conducted in conjunction with a major gathering of leaders in education and science to commemorate the groundbreaking legislation that provided funding for land-grant colleges and universities.

“This is an occasion for a renewal of America’s commitment to higher education,” said Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian.

According to the Carnegie poll of 1,000 Americans, three out of four Americans (76 percent) believe access to higher education should be a right with nearly half (46 percent) of Americans responding that they feel this way strongly.

Some 75 college and university presidents  joined with Carnegie and other leaders this afternoon at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for remarks and a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the work of President Abraham Lincoln and Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont.

As the Civil War raged on and the Union was in jeopardy, Lincoln and the members of the 37th Congress passed monumental legislation for the benefit of all Americans. The passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 enabled educational institutions in each eligible state to promote “the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Only eight months later, Congress passed, and President Lincoln signed, legislation calling for the founding of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which became a guiding force in the evolution of American science and technology.

“It is hard to argue that today we are not a nation divided,” said Gregorian. “Politically, socially, culturally, and even philosophically, most Americans have chosen their positions, hardened their opinions, and it seems like nothing will make them budge.  We have to do a better job of educating the American public about the role of higher education—both public and private.  There is a kind of amnesia engulfing our country today where we are detached from our past.”

“We shortchange our nation’s progress and squander our greatest renewable resource—our intellectual capital—if we allow critique of academia or passing partisan squabbling to stifle investment in higher education. It is clear we need to expand college opportunity, boost support for research, harness information technology to broaden access to knowledge assets, and maximize the value and relevance of our university and research systems born from the stroke of Lincoln’s pen,” Gregorian said.

Today’s wreath-laying ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial followed a day-long conference sponsored by the Library of Congress and Carnegie, “Creating a Dynamic, Knowledge-based Democracy: The passage of the Morrill Act and the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences and the Carnegie libraries,” at the Library of Congress. The events were attended by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN); U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT); and U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ); former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley; James Billington, Librarian of Congress; M. Peter McPherson, president, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; and Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. For information about the conference, visit

In addition, the survey found that 53 percent of Americans do not feel that under current conditions Congress and the White House could accomplish substantial bipartisan work similar to the Morrill Act 0f 1862.  However, the survey found that there is a strong appetite throughout the U.S. for bipartisanship in Washington. In the Carnegie poll, 72 percent of Americans surveyed said they would like to see their elected officials work in a bipartisan fashion than have them stand firm with their party on the issues.


Key Poll Findings:

Carnegie’s national on-line survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was conducted June 4-6, 2012. As noted above, the survey found that 53 percent of Americans do not feel that bipartisanship acts can be accomplished in Washington today. Only 29 percent feel it could be accomplished, while 18 percent are unsure.

According to the poll, three out of four Americans (76 percent) believe access to higher education should be a right and nearly half (46 percent) of Americans believe this strongly.  Just 20 percent feel higher education is not a right and 9 percent feel that way strongly.

Two-thirds (67 percent) of survey participants believe that the cost of college is the greatest barrier to access to higher education. This is followed by poor high school grades (6 percent); lack of encouragement from family, teachers, and/or guidance counselors (6 percent) and work/job obligations (6 percent). Lack of information about financial aid, family obligations, not taking prerequisite courses, lack of knowledge about how to apply and being too far from home are not viewed as barriers, each receiving 4 percent or less."