To provide a little context, land-grant institutions are those colleges and universities that were founded after the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. While this act was not the first time that the federal government used land grants to stimulate school building, it was novel in establishing a prolonged relationship with states that incentivized the sale of underutilized Western lands for educational purposes. The proceeds from land sales were designed to fund advanced education in the “practical arts” of agriculture, mechanics, mining, and military tactics—the so-called “A&M” fields.
The legacy of the Morrill Act was the idea that reconstructing and unifying a nation torn apart by war required federal support for “the accessible state college and university, characterized by a curriculum that was broad and utilitarian.” Such investment by the federal government in higher education became a pattern throughout the twentieth century. “In the name of state building, national leaders tapped higher education” to spur economic growth and “shape citizens’ political commitments.” It is for this reason that historian Christopher Loss identified higher education as a “parastate,” or intermediary institution in American national governance. Rather than rouse the public’s fear of “big government,” diffusing authority through state intermediaries like publicly funded colleges and universities became the federal government’s preferred method of nation building.
Much of the federal government’s investment in higher education in the post-war period focused on basic research. It was believed the basic research was the foundation of scientific advancement. Some view it to be a major reason why the United States was propelled to a position of economic dominance in the 20th century. Land-grant universities have become reliant upon federal research money to fund the now enormous post-secondary research-reputation machine. What’s interesting is that federal funding as a percentage of total research funding at public universities has been declining since the 1970s. In recent years, federal funding has been destabilized by growing national debt and government shutdowns. In other words, the contract between the federal government and land-grant institutions has eroded over time—a trend that looks to continue as America comes to grips with the rising costs of entitlements.
Similarly, state appropriations for public universities has been in decline, and in some states the drop has been precipitous. For many state budgets, higher education appropriations are decided after spending for all other major areas has been determined, especially k-12 education, the prison system, and health care. This has not reduced state expectations of their universities. Land-grant institutions are expected to do more with less, and to show exactly how much better they are doing in terms of students enrolled and graduated. It seems to me that the relationship between land-grant institutions and state governments should be rather tenuous. After all, how many people would continue working for a boss who keeps paying you less while forcing you to work more hours? The fact that so many leaders I interviewed believed we have an obligation to serve the state economy and national competitiveness, given that the government is offering less and less support, amazed me. It constituted a paradox of sorts. Both contrary to logic and true at the same time.
There are two possible explanations as to why my university is working to uphold its end of a contract the government—both state and federal—has seemingly abandoned. The first is that there is a hope that by demonstrating our contributions to economic growth, the government will suddenly realize how important investment in higher education is and increase funding. I don’t find this explanation particularly compelling because I think many government officials believe in the value of post-secondary education. Their hands are simply tied as a result of other expenses. The second explanation is that, regardless of how much money we are receiving from the government, we have built an institutional identity around being a public university that serves the public. Whether or not entrepreneurship actually serves the public or a few fortunate individuals is subject to debate. Nevertheless, I find this symbolic explanation more plausible. Look, for example, at the University of Virginia, which very much considers itself a public university, despite receiving less than 10 percent of its budget from state allocations.
The big question, then, is how long land-grant institutions will sustain the paradox. That is, how long will my university cling to its land-grant identity before it realizes that the contract has eroded? I don’t have a good sense of whether this a legitimate question for university leaders, or what the future may hold. However, it is clear that, for the time being, recalling our land-grant legacy still has currency. It is an identity marker that still has meaning for the university and it serves as a recurring justification for the rise of entrepreneurship around my campus.
 Christopher P. Loss, Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 3.