Christopher Gregory/The New York Times, Cornell University Archives

December 3, 2023

SCHECHTER | The Land Grant Act Needs A Revamp

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About every other day, I walk up to a short, old building made of Ithaca bluestone, quarried from the bottom of the slope. It’s an attractive building, named after a lover of architecture, but usually fails to catch students’ eyes. It’s old and solid, sitting in a line of buildings called “Stone Row.” The famous Cornell professor, Goldwin Smith, once said of those buildings that “nothing can redeem them but dynamite;” he clearly disagreed about their architectural beauty. On my way into class, I ascend a set of steep steps, swing open a set of large double doors, and pad past large aluminum letters that I glance over: “Morrill Hall, Arts and Sciences.”

I always assumed it was named after another donor, alumnus or professor. Until I started writing this piece I didn’t put together who its namesake was. I, like most of us here on campus, didn’t realize he had a greater impact on Cornell than any student, donor, alumnus or professor put together. 

What he accomplished in his life, much like the building constructed in his name, is old and solid. It has lasted a lifetime.

Cornell, founded in 1865, owes its entire existence to United States Senator Justin Morrill, a strikingly side-burned politician from Vermont. Despite the little we may know about him today, historians and congressional enthusiasts alike admire his power. He was respected by his political colleagues; his portrait hangs outside the Senate chamber; he was known as “The Father of The Senate.” 

Today, Morrill’s name doesn’t float around American history like other prominent figures from his time: people like President Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas or General Ulysses S. Grant. Many of Morrill’s actions have been lost in the annals of history, like his anti-polygamy law or protective Civil War era tariff in 1861. But in 1862, while he was still in the House of Representatives, he moved a revolutionary law through congress, an act that cemented his position among the greats of the American legislative branch and plastered his name on a Cornell building; it was called the Morrill Land Grant Act

That act isn’t living up to its original intent. We need to revive it. It’s time for a sequel.

His magnum opus was a law that provided one-sixth of what the government called “unclaimed public lands” to states for public education. Morrill’s hallmark legislation was proposed to move the country forward economically, to “provide colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the Mechanic arts” (mechanic arts essentially means engineering). Within a few decades, the passage of the act made America an outright leader in the field of technical education. But today, Senator Morrill’s vision has fallen by the wayside as our society has evolved and become more complex. His idea of schools that would train the common laborer has flamed out in today’s age, but we need them now more than ever. We need to reshape his forward-thinking idea and once again use those Land Grant schools to teach people technical skills, the skills that drive the heart of our economy. Cornell can be one of many schools to take on that challenge.

In 1860, two years before the Land Grant Act, the United States held a population of about thirty-one million people, just under a tenth of what we have today. The U.S. Civil War had not yet been fought, Americans still traveled on horseback and light bulbs didn’t exist. America wasn’t industrialized — it was agricultural.

Senator Morrill’s idea took full advantage of that pre-industrialized economy. At the time, the act was targeted at America’s working classes to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” It used government power to educate Americans in trades that would bolster the developing economy. They were the agricultural trades that America’s economy relied on, and Congress saw that we needed skilled workers to help drive them. And by all accounts, it was a massive success. It transformed the U.S. into a beacon of technical education.

The Land Grant Act lived up to its mission at the time of its founding. It created and funded a cohort of incredible schools that focused on teaching young people the tools of America’s powerhouse industries. It targeted vital industries; at the time of Morrill’s legislation, 53 percent of Americans worked in agricultural jobs. Today that number is just 10 percent. The specialties of these schools were closely aligned with the needs of the nation. The Agricultural College of Pennsylvania (now known as Penn State), for example, focused on teaching mechanical arts, agriculture, metalworking and carpentry. 

Justin Morrill’s vision slipped away quickly, though, as industrialization was swept across the world. As the economic composition of the country changed, these schools migrated away from their vocational-agricultural mission and began producing research important to the academic and scientific growth of our country. While they do important work, they no longer do the job they were intended to do. Their failure in this respect isn’t because they started with the wrong goal, it comes from their ability to adapt to a modern age.

The universities it created now mostly educate the academic elite, and no longer support the working class like they were intended to. The ranks of these land grant universities are now filled with massive household names:  Ohio State, Rutgers, Penn State, Berkley, MIT, Texas A&M, and importantly for us, Cornell. Why did these schools move away from the working man? It’s not because the Morrill Act didn’t serve its purpose, it’s because America needed higher level development from its schools as the world became more complex. The problem isn’t that they grew and added more subjects, it’s that they sacrificed the people they were built to raise up.

These 106 Land Grant institutions make up a razor-thin margin of the over 3,000 post-secondary degree-granting colleges in the United States, 2.6 percent to be exact. How can a tiny fraction of highly selective schools serve people who need technical skills? They just can’t.

If people have the time and the money to get a college education, they should. It’s an investment that will pay off in full, but a very pricey one at that. But people tend to look down on those who don’t follow the typical route of modern higher education: people who either can’t afford college or are not interested in pursuing it. Society doesn’t place sufficient value on those who choose to follow a different path. Today, just graduating high school isn’t enough. By 2027, 70 percent of jobs will require education or training beyond the secondary level. Luckily, there are alternatives to four-year degrees to empower students to accomplish career goals.

Now, in a world that values indoor running water, electricity and paved roads, we need people in those industries: the ones that keep the rest of society afloat. We need to value these jobs just as much as we did back in the 1950s — when only a tiny fraction of Americans went to college — or in the way the government invested in educating individuals on these careers in the 1860s. They are just as vital now as they have ever been, but neither society nor the government shows these people the respect that they deserve.

In this country, we experience what’s called the “skills gap.” Research from the United States Chamber of Commerce tells us that we’re missing people who have the skills to provide what the labor force needs. This broadening gap can be largely attributed to an education system that hasn’t grown with the economy. If public education doesn’t morph with the shape of the American economy, how can we expect to meet our needs? It’s leaving us without the qualified workers necessary to make the economic progress we want to see.

As of this November, we could put every unemployed American in an open job and be left with three million more openings. It shows that a lack of jobs isn’t the main issue when it comes to unemployment — it’s matching employers with employees that can do the job — many of them without a college education.

Once our country realizes that these people are just as valuable to our progress as those who do decide to go after a traditional four-year degree, we need a way to close the skills gap. We can do it; we just need training. It is my deep belief that we accomplish that by rekindling a commitment made to technical education 161 years ago that was a smash hit the first time. 

America needs to redouble Morrill’s original commitment to technical education with a new Morrill Act to address the pressing needs we face in our country in the modern age. 

It would use federal dollars to fund career education for any American starting in high school. And those dollars would be channeled through the very same powerhouse universities that the Land Grant Act originally created through pre-existing, federally mandated cooperative extensions (programs that disseminate Land Grant knowledge to counties across the state). An act like this would once again make America a technical education leader. It would also warrant a posthumous round of applause from Senator Justin Morrill.

Justin Morrill was on to something all those years ago. The working class is the beating heart of the American economy. Career and technical education, or CTE, can tap into that beating heart to shape the future of the American workforce. It’s the solution that keeps the spirit of the Land Grant Act relevant in the 21st century. The idea behind CTE recognizes that and builds on it in a mutually productive way. It puts money in the pockets of more marketable workers and boosts productivity at the same time, bolstering the economy. CTE programs align students with the skills they need most when they meet the “real world,” and that training can start as early as high school.

While CTE can be administered at dedicated high schools, magnet schools, area technical centers or community colleges, Programs like these have fallen short at elite universities. And this has to change. Especially at Cornell. Many Land Grant schools like our own already have robust cooperative extension programs that play a role in local and statewide community building. Our program at Cornell helps restore shellfish in Long Island, works for clean water in NYC and builds out wildfire sensors across the state among many other projects. Why can’t that same extension, through additional government investment, build out robust, short-term CTE programs? We already have the stage to build it on: “Cornell Career” programs could help New Yorkers earn credentials through our already strong cooperative extension.

A program like this is well within reach. It would build on brands that students already know, trust and look up to: Cornell, Michigan State and Berkeley are great examples. Technical branches of these strong schools would be attractive to young people who want to go directly into the workforce. The ability to earn professional credentials from these Land Grant schools while in high school, at night or on the weekends would transform lives. 

If our public education system can use established Land Grant universities to start training young people in trades like hospitality, information technology, manufacturing, transportation or carpentry, hordes of highly skilled youths will enter the workforce ready to thrive at the businesses that really need them. This would be a win-win situation. Students save money on pricey bachelor’s degrees and enter the workforce at a young age, ready to make an impact with the skills they’ve developed through subsidized career education.

To pull off something ambitious like this, schools need the government resources to do it. Luckily, it’s already an issue with bipartisan congressional support, a unicorn issue that’s rare in American politics. 

While watching a congressional budgetary hearing in the House Committee on Education and The Workforce over the summer, I was pleasantly surprised to see the cooperation that CTE drew from lawmakers. There was a common consensus that CTE would be vital to our health as a country. I even heard first hand from Congressman French Hill (R-AR 2nd District) about the transformative impact that he’s seen local CTE programs make on the lives of highschoolers in his own district.

It’s a bipartisan issue because there’s pretty much no spin to it. It doesn’t benefit one party over another, it puts money in the pockets of citizens willing to work and it props up the American economy. Both sides realize that affordable, democratized, subsidized training makes the everyman the captain of his own ship. 

President Biden has started to push toward it, requesting $1.47 billion for Career and Technical Education State Grants in his FY 2024 budget. Biden’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, said that an increased budgetary emphasis on these programs is to help students “find their passion and their purpose in life,” no matter what it is.

Within the framework of new centers of technical education, the government has an opportunity to help right a wrong. The black mark that stains the Land Grant Act is where the lands originally came from. The land that the Morrill Act used to create each and every Land Grant school was stolen directly from the hands of indigenous people, 10.7 million acres from over 250 tribes to be exact. For Cornell, the act took over 990,000 acres from over 230 tribes in 15 different states. Lands from all over the country, mostly Wisconsin and California were sold away to fund Cornell. The American government ignored Native American rights in taking that land.

By creating this CTE system through the existing platform of Land Grant schools, institutions could offer free enrollment to all descendants of the tribes displaced from this act. The government has an imperative to at least start to repay that great asset taken from indigenous groups. Native Americans are among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the whole nation, with one in three of them living in poverty. They have gotten the short end of the stick time and time again, but an investment in their future would make a profound impact on native communities. 

Schools like Cornell can continue to prove that they value the indigenous communities that are deeply tied to the roots of the school. A focus on indigenous peoples within CTE can play a small role in making right the mistakes from 161 years ago.

The program would create jobs, give people marketable skills, provide businesses with skilled laborers and build off educational brands that people already know and respect. The push towards this vision of a CTE-focused future starts in the legislative branch. Lawmakers need to act on what they already see as an important issue. There are currently 15 CTE bills on the floors of the House and the Senate right now –– but the current Congress remains deadlocked, struggling to even keep the government open. Congress needs to pass those CTE bills.

The Morrill Land Grant Act needs a sequel where young people who don’t want to go to college can go after a credential that better serves them at a school that can support it. An investment in this training at places like Cornell could transform local communities, building them up by shaping uneducated people into skilled workers. And it lets us honor Native Americans who were stiffed by the last act. 

Legislative efforts like this are truly American: it puts value on the underappreciated workers who make our country what it is today while working towards inclusivity for all. This is a path that America needs to follow, and it can start in our own backyard. Let’s put Justin Morrill’s dream on a modern path.

Henry Schechter is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Onward focuses on politics, social issues and how they come to bear in Ithaca. He can be reached at [email protected].

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