In December 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it was opening up some of its online courses to anyone in the world who wished to take them, an initiative called MITx. By May of 2012, MIT announced a partnership with Harvard University to offer free online courses jointly. Called edX, these initiatives are part of a larger movement called MOOCs, or "massive open online courses."

Ten years ago, MIT was one of the pioneers of the Open Courseware Movement (OCW), which made available course materials from every one of the courses taught at MIT (today, materials from 2100 courses are free to anyone), and MITx and edX were the next logical step in this endeavor.

While those accessing MITx courses or materials through OCW cannot secure degrees or other credentials from MIT, these are nevertheless highly sought after by students seeking access to high quality technical courses such as "Introduction to Solid State Chemistry," "Introduction to Computer Science and Programming," "Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research," and "Artificial Intelligence."

MOOCs and open courseware programs are designed in part to open up access to higher education.

It should come as no surprise that MIT would be a leader in making the content of its courses freely available, as MIT was one of the nation's first land-grant colleges.

The Great Democratic Experiment

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, the brainchild of Vermont Congressman and later Senator Justin Smith Morrill, which created the land-grant universities in the United States.

At its heart, the Act was based on two principles that have continued to influence the way in which we think about higher education in the United States: that it should be widely accessible (with states underwriting higher education so that it is affordable for many) and practical.

Morrill intended for these state-supported schools to educate agriculturalists and mechanics, because he understood that a rapidly industrializing nation would need people with practical skills. Although the U.S. economy has since industrialized and globalized, in many ways higher education in America is still defined by the goals of access and practicality.

The idea of greater access to college education was not unique to Morrill. Indeed, so-called "worker's colleges" such as The Agricultural College of Michigan and the People's College of New York long predated the Morrill Act.

Other legislators had proposed bills similar to Morrill's, but he was the most persistent advocate for expansion of higher education. In 1856, Morrill proposed his first resolution, which called on the Committee on Agriculture to create of a Board of Agriculture including "one or more national agricultural schools upon the basis of the naval and military academies."

Morrill argued that the federal government expanded commerce by investing in lighthouses and harbors, and that agriculture and agricultural education should similarly benefit from federal largess especially given what Morrill saw as the deteriorating condition of agriculture in the United States.

"Our country is growing debilitated, and we propagate the consumptive disease with all the energy of private enterprise and public patronage," he said. "Does not our general system of agriculture foreshadow ultimate decay? If so, is it beyond our constitutional power and duty to provide an incidental remedy?"

Improving the skills and knowledge of farmers was the best method to reverse this decline, in Morrill's estimation, and the federal government could play a critical role. To fund these public colleges, Morrill proposed land grants, which had been used successfully to fund the railroads.

A land grant meant that the federal government would set aside sizeable amounts of land—up to 30,000 acres in each state—which would then be sold, the proceeds of which would fund "the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college" in each state, although in some cases these funds would also augment the resources of an existing college, as with the case of MIT.

Morrill met fierce opposition to his proposals, not as much for his educational goals but for this method of funding. While land grants had been used by the federal government before, opponents nevertheless saw land grants for education to be an example of federal overreach. Many southern states, in particular, rejected this; Clement Clay from Alabama called Morrill's efforts "one of the most monstrous, iniquitous and dangerous measures which have ever been submitted to Congress."

It should come as no surprise, then, that after several unsuccessful attempts at passing his education bills, the Morrill Act was passed only in 1862, during the Civil War, after Southern legislators had left Washington.

Morrill proposed several bills between 1856 and final passage in 1862.In each version, Morrill proposed that the federal government's role in higher education was in creating colleges that were both practical and accessible. Their curricula would teach agriculture, engineering, military tactics, and the sciences, as well as the classical curriculum that had heretofore defined higher education in America.

Forty-eight colleges were formed as a result of the first Morrill Act. There was a second Morrill Act, passed in 1890 (Morrill was one of the nation's longest-serving senators), after a dozen attempts to expand his original act between 1872 and 1890.

The second Morrill Act was aimed at the reconstituted Southern states, and included provisions that eventually led to the funding of seventeen "historically black colleges and universities" (HBCUs).

The Hatch Act of 1887 (named for Congressman William Hatch of Missouri) set aside funds to establish "agricultural experiment stations," which laid the foundation of the agricultural extension movement that eventually became central to these land-grant colleges.

Access and Practicality 2.0: The GI Bill

While the two Morrill Acts opened up access to more people who wished to attend university, the increase in attendance was gradual and halting. College enrollments skyrocketed only after the Second World War, a process facilitated by acts of Congress.

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (popularly known as the GI Bill) provided assistance to returning veterans of WWII to purchase homes and, importantly, to attend university. The GI Bill led to an explosion in college enrollments far larger than that seen after the two Morrill Acts.

At the time, few understood the impact the GI Bill would have on college enrollments. Optimists assumed that perhaps 10% of veterans would matriculate, and that most would instead seek employment. By fall 1945, 8,000 GIs enrolled in college, but by 1946, that number had swelled to one million; and by 1950, to two million.

The Higher Education Act of 1964 extended GI Bill benefits to every American, via a series of loans and grants. In 1972, an amendment to the Higher Education Act created the Basic Educational Opportunities Grants (BEOG) program, which was soon renamed "Pell Grants" after Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island.

Significantly, BEOGs were grants, not loans, and were awarded to students, not to institutions. Full-time students with financial need who maintained good grades would receive up to $1250 (the equivalent of over $6000 today) of yearly support to pay for college tuition.

One outcome was that colleges began to compete for such students. "The portability feature," writes historian of higher education John Thelin, "meant that hundreds of thousands of recipients now had the means to go to college and a choice as to which college to attend … Between 1972 and 1978 the Pell Grant program was popular with students and institutions, and it helped promote the appeal of 'going to college' to a new generation of students."

The combined effects of these post-war congressional acts were especially pronounced for America's community colleges.

While junior colleges first emerged in the early part of the 20th century, they exploded in the 1960s from around 400 colleges and 325,000 students in 1955 to 973 colleges and 3.4 million students. The Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 provided funds necessary to build many of these community colleges.

All of these acts aimed to extend access to higher education, very much in keeping with the spirit of the original Morrill Act.

Practical Learning?

Morrill envisioned farmers and mechanics attending college and learning practical skills at the same time they were reading their Greek and Latin classics. Morrill, at least, seemed to wish to balance "higher learning"—learning for learning's sake at a higher intellectual, metaphysical, even spiritual plane—and what the economist Gary Becker in the 1960s first called "human capital development."

In a modern industrial and now global economy, the knowledge and skills of workers is one of the most important capital assets. Therefore, investments need to be made in human capital to the same degree we would invest in other capital assets.

Colleges and universities have, especially since Morrill's time, fulfilled this role of providing students with advanced training in skills that have practical application to the world outside of the academy. That is, in addition to training scholars, American colleges and universities also train technically-skilled specialists.

Indeed, while there are certainly colleges and universities that specialize in one or the other (the local community college specializes in skills training, while the Institute for Advanced Study is the quintessential center for "higher learning"), many colleges and universities attempt to serve a dual purpose: championing the liberal arts and developing employable skills.

But given the choice, observe how many students today major in "practical subjects" rather than the liberal arts; since the 1980s, more students receive bachelor's degrees in business, for example, than any other college major.

Indeed, attendance in colleges and universities grew steadily throughout the 20th century in part because of the promise of a "better life" from a college degree. Frequently cited statistics reveal that those with college degrees earn more over a lifetime than those without college degrees. That we continue to talk of the value of a college degree in terms of skills preparation is in no small measure due to the vision of Justin Morrill.

The nature of the modern economy is such that many jobs require advanced training. Wired and National Public Radio's "Planet Money" recently teamed up to explore the next generation of "smart jobs," those that require more than a high school education but perhaps not as much as a bachelor's degree.

As Adam Davidson writes, "Smart jobs tend to scramble the line between blue-collar and white-collar. Their titles tend toward the white (technician, specialist, analyst), but the underlying industries often tend toward the blue, toward the making of physical stuff. Smart jobs can involve factories and machines, plastics and chemicals, but operating those instruments and manipulating those materials demands far more brains than brawn."

During the last presidential campaign, Republican hopeful Rick Santorum made headlines by suggesting that President Obama was an "elitist" for encouraging more people to attend and graduate from college. We should assume that Santorum was trying to score political points with his base by equating "college" with "liberal indoctrination," and that he did not actually believe that most people do not need college.