The Problems and Politics of Governance in State Universities: The Land Grant Colleges


The role of education is not only necessary for economic advancement, but also essential for a healthy democracy. Higher education is increasingly becoming more essential for the citizenry of this nation, in the sense that gaining a middle class lifestyle requires a degree beyond high school. At the same time that more people are entering higher education, the governance of these institutions remain in the shadows. The governance of universities remains in an undemocratic structure. The modern university is structured to serve state and corporate power, and the expense of the interests of regular people, the interests it should serve. This study will look at the governance of public universities, with a specific focus on the governance structure of New Mexico universities.

Federal and State Roles in Higher Education

The history of the modern university is one of an institution set up for elite interests progressively made to increase access to more people. In the context of the United States, a relatively new nation in the global sense, it’s history is this. The first universities what would become the United States, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and others in what are now called the Ivy League,were under the influence of different church groups built to train clergy and political leaders, and even had partial support from colonial governments. Set up for classical training, the needs for more scientific and professional training by the mid 19th century changed the university system in the United States in a revolutionary direction, as “there was a public call for a more utilitarian education available to more people. The result was a national investment in the land grant universities.” (1). It started with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Acts; the First Morrill Act was passed in July 2, 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, the Second Morrill Act was passed on August 30, 1890. These acts provided each state 30,000 acres of public land “for each Senator and Representative under apportionment based on the 1860 census.” Further, proceeds from the sale of these lands were to be invested in a perpetual endowment fund to establish colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in the states, “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes on the several pursuits and professions in life.” (2). The Second Morrill Act simply expanded on this pursuit. Seven other acts were passed by the federal government in the years after these. They all extended access, secured financial assistance, and underwrote research in institutions of higher learning (3).

The GI Bill and other financial aid packages passed after World War II created a mass increase in enrollment to institutions of higher education. This enrollment was often by those who never would have been able to enter those institutions before, those who were poor, working class, and persons of color. This was at the same time that universities played an increasingly strategic role in American society. Business Week describes it as this:

“The democratization of its higher education system was one of America’s great 20th century achievements. Before World War II, college was reserved for an elite minority. Since then, generous financial aid programs, coupled with large taxpayer subsidies of public universities and community colleges, helped to usher in a tenfold increase in enrollments. The U.S. Became the first nation to embrace mass higher education, gaining an enormous advantage in a world economy that puts increasing value on knowledge workers.” (4)

Despite this federal intervention, up to today the funding and general governance of higher education has been done mostly at the state level. This is one area of the federal system where states have more power. On the federal level, the Department of Education is one of the smallest cabinets agencies in the executive branch, with a budget of $30 billion, with most of it devoted to distributing financial aid and servicing student loans (5).

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education,

“In the United States, the states bear the primary public responsibility for higher education. They help to determine who qualifies for college by providing oversight of the public school system. They provide most of the direct financial support to – and oversight of – public colleges and universities, and significant support to private ones. They determine the organizational structures of public higher education, can shape the relationships between higher education and the public schools, and can encourage coordination between private and public higher education. Through these and other means, states are responsible for ensuring that qualified high school graduates and the many workers who need retraining will have ample opportunity for education and training beyond high school – at affordable prices. And states are enriched by these investments: states with highly educated populations reap economic, cultural, and civic benefits.” (6)

Furthermore, seventy-eight percent of college students in the US are enrolled in public colleges and universities, which are created by and financially dependent upon each state government. The states also provide 46 percent of financial support for public colleges and universities, and 29 percent of total support for all public and private colleges and universities. In terms of money, states provided more than $57 billion in higher education appropriations in 1998-99, and $3 billion in financial aid for students at those same institutions in 1997-98 (7). The financing of higher education in the US, as well as significant public policies regarding it, remains a matter for the states.

State and federal efforts to increase access to higher education have worked in increasing enrollment, especially for those groups that have been marginalized in society. Enrollment went from 2.3 million in 1947 to 10.2 million in 1974, 14.3 million in 1997, and was expected to be at around 19 million in 2015. Now, two-thirds of all high school graduates go on to some sort of higher education. The consensus is that Americans who aspire to a middle class standard of living are finding it necessary to have education and training beyond high school. A poll in 2000 showed that 87 percent of Americans said that a college education was becoming as important as a high school diploma used to be, and college being more important than it was before (8). The demographics have also changed, as Black, Hispanic, and Asian students are accounting for most of the growth in enrollments. (9) More Black and Hispanic parents, who were less likely to go to college than their White counterparts, see college education as necessary for success in today’s work world than White parents. The importance of college education is a societal good, and more emphasis is seen on obtaining skills for the workplace than a traditional liberal arts education.

At the same time that higher education is becoming more important to more of the American population, it is also facing cutbacks as states work to balance their budgets with decreasing revenues. State governments have had to contend with their decreasing tax capacities, decreased federal support, growing education costs, and other competing priorities that state governments have to contend with. In the 1990’s the share of state budgets devoted to higher education decreased from 15 percent to 13 percent, and the share of college revenues paid by states decreased from 35 percent to 29 percent. With this, more of the costs of college has shifted to students and families, with the share of tuition as a percentage of college revenues increasing from 31 percent to 36 percent (10).

A previous post here went into more detail about the tuition hikes in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

The wave of tuition hikes in universities across the country, including 76 land grand universities across the nation, along with state budget cuts, left many schools with tasks of preserving accessibility to all students with less money coming in. Many wondered if the land grant ideals the state universities were formed from were being threatened (11).


  1. Gerber, John. “Universities: Before the Land Grants.” 1997, revised 2011.
  2. First Morrill Act, 1862; Second Morrill Act, 1890; available at
  3. Martin, Randy. Chalk Lines: The Politics of Work in the Managed University. Duke University Press. 1998. Pg. 3.
  4. Symonds, William C. “Colleges in Crisis.” Business Week. April 28, 2003. pp. 72-79.
  5. Martin, ibid.
  6. Prospectus. “A State-by-State Report Card on Higher Education.” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. March 2000. (Accessed 2002).
  7. Prospectus, ibid.
  8. Wilgoren, Jodi. “College Education Seen As Essential.” New York Times. May 4, 2000.
  9. Wilgoren, Jodi. “Swell of Minority Students Is Predicted at Colleges.” New York Times. May 24, 2000.
  10. Prospectus, ibid.
  11. Manning, Stephen. “Tuition Hikes Challenge University Land Grant Roots.” Associated Press. November 6, 2003.


About elloborojo

Okay, as the subtitle states, this is a notebook from what I call a New Mexico diaspora (look up diaspora if you are asking). I was a former resident of New Mexico, now living elsewhere, but New Mexico is still my homeland. To get more in touch with your homeland one must be away from it. This is my attempt to understand it. I was a former anti-militarism activist in the Albuquerque area. Still believe that United Snakes militarism is the greatest threat to the world, as do the majority of the worlds population. Uncovered much information about the ties in New Mexico, but never processed it all. This blog is an attempt to do that. Also hope it may come of use to others with similar interests.
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