Onward Debates: Private State University

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 is one of my favorite pieces of legislation.

A Congress atrophied by the Civil War sent a bill to President Lincoln that, when signed into law, changed the face of tertiary education in America. I did a project in seventh grade about Penn State, and discussion of the Morrill Act took up more pages than it probably should have. It made higher education both affordable and valuable to the common man. This was an Act designed not to increase the number of scholars of law or divinity, but of botany, agriculture, and the “mechanical arts.” Penn State became one of the nation’s first land grant institutions.

Penn State has always been a publicly supported institution. According to the Penn State webpage about the Act, it “conferred on Penn State a three-part mission: teaching, research, and public service.” In exchange for carrying out this invaluable mission, the then-Agricultural College of Pennsylvania received a $30,000 per year endowment from the Commonwealth, the interest on a bond from the eponymous land grant.

In this year, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Land Grant Act, public support is the lowest in modern memory. A University built to enrich the Commonwealth is now only receiving nominal support from the same. Just because it’s the easiest to access, let’s look at the state’s contribution to PSU’s General Funds Budget over the years. In 1970, Pennsylvania provided 62 percent of the budget, while tuition provided 32 percent. Today, the state contributes 14 percent of the same budget, while tuition accounts for 78 percent. To say the tables have turned would be a gross understatement. This is the Commonwealth abandoning Penn State. This is the Commonwealth abandoning its part of the Morrill Act compact.

While you may argue that the budget has increased over the years, the downward trend in state appropriation for higher education is irrefutable. This isn’t just in Pennsylvania. All across the country, states are reneging on their support for higher education.  All those years ago, Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont did not mean for his act to simply provide the startup funds for these land grant institutions, but rather that his infusion of capital would be paid back annually in the form of an educated populous for eternity.

He expected that in return for making the state more economically viable, learned, and successful, the state would give back to the universities, allowing them to flourish and creating a virtuous circle to enrich the lives of all. Let us not forget that on a $338 million investment in Penn State in 2008, Pennsylvania saw the University generate $8.5 billion in direct economic impact. That’s a 25:1 ratio! You can’t argue that this money is somehow being squandered, that it’s not a wise investment. It pays off in both the short term and the long term. An educated citizenry is an asset that cannot be preserved by foolishly focusing on the immediate budget cycle at the expense of the future.

The $30,000 per year Pennsylvania originally gave Penn State from interest on land grant monies, in today’s dollars, is equivalent  to $652,173.91. Taking in to account the number of students enrolled in the 1870s, we see that this is about $10,200 per student per year. If Penn State was currently funded at 1863 levels per student, instead of a proposed $150 million for 2012-13, it would be getting about $984.5 million! Even if Penn State was funded at 1863 levels according to the current state-related funding ratio (PSU:Temple:Pitt:Lincoln), it would still be appropriated about $433 million, almost three times that of the proposed funding.

The closest the University has ever gotten to that was 22 years ago.

Penn State has had no greater foe in recent years than current Republican governor Tom Corbett. As you may recall, last year the Governor proposed cutting our appropriation by more than 50 percent. While that did not quite come to fruition, this year it appears as though he’s angling for a 30 percent cut.

Corbett’s disregard for public higher education may lead you to go on a tirade about the misconceptions many Republican Party members seem to have about the value of public goods, or about how the party that prides itself on being pro-business can’t see universities for the investment in human capital that they are, but I’ll refrain- though I welcome you to do so in the comments.

Instead, I’d like to meditate on the choice the Governor has given us in the immediate aftermath of the Sandusky scandal. In reference to Penn State’s unique relationship with Pennsylvania’s Right to Know laws, Governor Corbett said, “We have to decide, the board has to decide, whether they’re going to be a public entity that receives public funds or a private entity.”

Setting aside the ethics of whether Penn State should abide by the Right to Know law, I say it’s time we call Corbett on his bluff.

For the past few decades, Penn State’s contribution to the Commonwealth has increased while its appropriation has plunged. Pennsylvania’s most powerful economic engine lies neglected, a victim of a state with the wrong set of fiscal priorities.

An increasing number of out-of-state and international students are being accepted because they pay higher tuition, reducing the impact of reduced state appropriations on Pennsylvanians, but also diluting the “Pennsylvania-ness” of the institution, for better or worse. Penn State University has become very much “state” in name only.

In light of these slights, one of the nation’s first land grant universities should abdicate its title.

It should become Private State University.

I am not suggesting that Penn State abandon its myriad outreach efforts across the Commonwealth, its cooperative extensions, or its land grant mission. I am not suggesting that Penn State cut its agricultural or its academic programs. I am suggesting, rather, that PSU embrace the political reality that a long-declining state appropriation and a fiscally conservative environment in Harrisburg do not bode well for Dear Old State.

Getting a fresh start as a private institution may be the best thing we can do to ensure the long term excellence of our school, prevent groundbreaking programs like STS (Science, Technology & Society) from disappearing amid University belt-tightening, and create a future in which Penn State doesn’t have to grovel every year on the Capitol steps to avoid a staggering appropriation cut. It is neither prudent nor responsible to plan Penn State’s budget around the unpredictable whims of Harrisburg politicians.

If and when this goes down, tuition will go up. Financial aid will also have to go up. Some Commonwealth Campuses (perhaps all of them) will need to be sold or left to operate independently. Penn State will have to more actively tap into its more than 550,000 living alumni to feed our endowment.

In this, the most unusual year in our history, it is difficult to imagine taking such a dramatic step, but step we must.

If we choose to stay public, you can cut programs. You can cut majors. You can hire fewer faculty. You can reduce pensions. You can make Penn State a much less desirable place to learn, teach, and research. But in the end, you’ll be left with a school that’s a shadow of its former self- a hollowed out husk of the greatness that once was. It might be called Penn State, but it sure as hell won’t be Penn State.

I don’t want that.

You don’t want that.

I have no doubt that there are many compelling reasons to remain a public institution. I have no doubt you’ll let me hear about them loudly below. When the Pennsylvania governor’s proposed budget in 20XX has no money for Penn State, the choice will have been made for us. By then, we’ll be that empty husk. We cannot allow this to happen. New York University’s motto is “A private university in the public service.” This is our future.

Justin Morrill said he proposed the Land Grant Act “to offer an opportunity in every state for a liberal and larger education to larger numbers, not merely to those destined for sedentary professions, but to those much needing higher instruction for the world’s business, for the industrial pursuits and professions of life.” Penn State has offered this education for the past 150 years. It will continue to do so for the next 150– with or without the support of the Commonwealth.

You can find the argument for going fully public here.

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About the Author

Eli Glazier

Eli is a junior majoring in International Politics. He enjoys paninis and books.

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