The scandal of land grant colleges

Most Americans and almost all non-Americans have no idea what the Land Grant Colleges are or how they were formed. It became clear to Lincoln (yes, honest Abe) that the rich were going to be educated and the poor would receive no further education because college or university was just too expensive. 

So, with the Morrill Acts (1862 and President Harrison’s extension for the South in 1890), the federal government gave huge tracts of land to budding or wanna-be institutions to create a financial base to create free, yes free, higher education for the masses. In 1969 when I went to university in California at UCLA, anyone who graduated from high school had an automatic spot in the UC system and the fee was basically the registration cost of $80 per term. 

I was not a California resident so I paid $800 a term. How was this possible? Because the UC system was given thousands of acres of public land on which they allowed commercial and government development — and millions of property dollars annually to defray the expense of running one of the finest educational systems in the world.

And, yes, like all such institutions, they begged, pleaded with, and rewarded donors. There was a world-class sculpture garden at UCLA that was privately funded. Wings to the hospital paid for by studios and wealthy patrons. All the usual philanthropy you would expect… and along with the philanthropy came the benefits the donors needed, craved and relied on. 

Naming a building? No big deal. Donating a statue with a plaque honoring the donor? Fitting. Funding the expansion of the football team or basketball team in exchange for box seats, then hospitality suites, then a place on the board of regents… and the slippery slope began.

Oh, in case you are thinking that Lincoln and Harrison were the only conservatives to endorse real education, try Teddy Roosevelt who additionally funded the land grant system along with Reagan after. 

Then Clinton in 1994 added more funds. All in an effort to expand affordable excellence in higher education. Like Eisenhower and Truman’s GI Bill which rewarded disciplined veterans of World War II with a chance to go to college for free, the government thinking here was egalitarian — what is good for the individual is good for the country. 

In short, it follows the Christian mantra, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him (and the country )for a lifetime.” 

The government actually thought that teaching these rural colleges and universities how to adopt a capitalist commercial mind-set to fund better and mostly free higher education would stick. But then the government forgot the greed of donors and the value of entertainment as bragging rights.

I have never seen a donor, no matter how rich, have a tail-gate party in front of a hospital wing they donated and sing, drink, and carouse with pals to celebrate their generosity. But that same donor, at a kill-for-an-inch football game will scream for “his” team and remind anyone within earshot how important his contribution was, how important his sky box is above the riff-raff below. 

The bragging rights for sports is much more rewarding to these so-called donors and so the universities across the nation jumped on that bandwagon as fast as possible. To do so, they took funds meant for education and built stadiums, then threw parties for “boosters” and alumni to make them invest in the new business. 

And a business it is. How big is college football? Heck, even MIT (with early land-grant funding) has a football team where they pay the coaches more than most professors!

It is a vicious circle, to keep the boosters coughing up money, the teams need more facilities, more cash, more talented muscle. They corrupt the educational system to allow these players sometimes to skip lessons but keep their B average, they don’t “pay” players, but reward them in every way possible. And then along came TV and contract entertainment money… and the money train rolls on.

Now, here’s a piece of math to remember... CTE affects 99 percent of professional players’ brains examined and likely 76 percent of all players overall according to several medical studies. College players’ levels are lower, currently estimated to be possibly 91 percent for those severely affected and likely 65 percent of all those who play. 

The NFL has been forced by a judge to change their allocated CTE recovery fund of $765,000,000 to over $1,000,000,000. Here it comes… ready? There are 6,500 college players for every one NFL player. Doing the math, that means colleges — most of them land-grant colleges — will have to start to set aside $5,559,210,400,000 for their CTE payments. 

Oh, in case you read that number wrong, that’s more than $5 trillion and counting. I wonder if those boosters will have tailgate parties at autopsies? I wonder if the land-grant mismanaged universities will survive?


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.