The entrances into higher education must become more inclusive of prospective students whose backgrounds and experiences are not aligned with traditional pathways into college.

Late this summer I got my hands on Adam Harris’s new book, The State Must Provide:  Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – and How to Set Them Right. Harris, a journalist formerly with the Chronicle of Higher Education and now a staff writer at The Atlantic, tackles the issue of equity in higher education. Weaving personal narrative with a synthesis of a great deal of historical materials, Harris tells story after story about how Black Americans were systematically denied access to higher education.  It is a powerful book, and one that has garnered a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks.

Much of the book focuses on institutions in the South, where resistance to the expectations of the Civil Rights Movement were most visibly – and often quite cleverly and at great expense – made.  Michigan State University makes one appearance in the book. Harris caps his exploration of the 1960s with the 1969 appointment of Clifton R. Wharton to be the president of MSU. Wharton was the first African American president of a major university and, as Harris points out, “a land-grant university, at that.”

Land grant universities figure prominently in Harris’s story because their creation and development is intricately bound to slavery, abolition, and the American promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The much-celebrated Morrill Land Grant Act rewarded states that remained in the Union during the Civil War with land, most of which was seized from Native American tribes, that they could sell to fund the creation or expansion of agricultural colleges. It had taken more than a quarter of a century for the federal government to finally agree on how to fund the creation of state-based colleges to promote agriculture and the “industrial arts.” 

The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act’s passage was a giant step forward for public education that came at the expense of the millions of people who were not allowed to attend these new institutions because of their race and the millions more people whose land was taken to fund it. It took nearly three decades before the passage of a second Act expanded the land grant model to the former Confederate states, and that second Act reinforced a separate and unequal higher education structure in the U.S. 

The Morrill Act of 1890 required that states demonstrate that race was either not an admissions criterion or create a separate land-grant institution for people of color. Harris shows the incredible lengths some states were willing to go to prevent Black and white students from sharing the same classrooms. Those explicit efforts and many other less visible ones in both Northern and Southern states lay the foundation for our current deep and complex problems related to race, equity, and access. 

For the last several years, our Student Success efforts have focused on reforming MSU to ensure that it supports every student we admit to learn, thrive, and graduate. Closing opportunity gaps and raising persistence rates for all students have been lagging measures of our work, and we have seen progress in most of the metrics we track. Large scale initiatives – like mathematics reform, Go15, and the second-year live-on requirement – are driven by a commitment to make MSU a Student Success leader.

Now, we need to extend our Student Success initiatives by making a deeper commitment to access. The entrances into higher education must become more inclusive of prospective students whose backgrounds and experiences are not aligned with traditional pathways into college. The declining numbers of students graduating from high schools is a golden opportunity to extend the opportunity and benefits of higher education to populations of people who have – intentionally or unintentionally – been excluded.

MSU is a highly accessible institution and our Office of Admissions does amazing work finding and engaging a diversity of students around the globe. Among the efforts underway to increase access to MSU are two that the APUE works with other offices on campus to advance. Envision Green, MSU’s and LCC’s collaboration to create smooth pathways from community college into MSU continues to grow.  It will provide a template for MSU to use with the state’s 29 other community colleges who collectively enroll 180,000 students. Like the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that figure prominently in Harris’s book, community colleges offer access to students who often find institutions like MSU inaccessible.

Another important emerging access initiative in our office is an increasing focus on “some-college-no-degree” (SCND) citizens. Nationally, only about 50% of the people who start college will persist and graduate. Governor Whitmer’s “Sixty by 30” set a goal of 60% of Michigan’s residents having a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030. There are 1.1 million Michiganders who are classified as SCND, and helping them complete their degrees will be critical to meeting the governor’s goal. To do this, MSU will need to think holistically about recruiting and supporting these students.  Everything we learned about online education during the pandemic will need to be harnessed to help these students – and many others – gain access to the college educations that they need and deserve.

I hope you all have found time to recharge at some point this summer.  You can feel the campus coming back to life a little more each day, and I am excited to be in person with my friends and colleagues on campus once again.


Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.