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WASHINGTON, D.C.—Public universities observing the 150th anniversary of the federal law that led to their creation found their celebration tempered Tuesday, June 26th, by stern calls to restore their original purpose of making higher education available to everyone.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates told university presidents and others gathered in Washington that their pursuit of higher rankings had led them to become too selective in admissions and to lavish financial aid on students who don’t need it. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged them to make more information available to students about the real costs of college, and the likelihood of actually graduating.

“As public institutions, your prestige comes from a commitment to equity, opportunity and excellence,” Gates said at the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which paved the way for more than 70 public and a few quasi-public and private universities. “It is not a point of high status to keep students out.”

Signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862, the Morrill Act—named for the Vermont congressman who introduced it—set aside federal land to be used or sold to establish public universities that would come to include Auburn, Cornell, MIT, Purdue, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, the University of California system, and the universities of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, plus Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania state universities.

Lincoln signed the measure into law as the Civil War was under way, said Duncan, because he understood the nation was fighting for equality “not just in law, but in life.” And Gates said increasing college costs have put the nation on “a path that may lead us away from the historical commitment to equity and opportunity.”

Yet universities are dangling financial aid in front of high-achieving students to improve their standing in U.S. News & World Report and other college rankings, Gates said, while students who need it can’t get it.

“Money is being spent on students who may actually need the least help,” Gates said.

Meanwhile, Duncan said in separate remarks, “out-of-control tuition costs” continue to rise.

“We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face and doing our young people a great disservice,” he said. “At a time when college has never been more important, it also unfortunately has never been more expensive.”

He challenged the university officials, including many presidents, to make themselves more accountable by joining a small handful of schools that have agreed to publicize the true cost of college, how much of available financial aid consists of loans rather than grants, the estimated monthly repayment amounts on those loans, and how many students ultimately graduate.

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