American universities are in trouble. And no, I don’t mean the troubles in the Ivy League, though these schools are indeed a mess. America’s other—potentially more important—universities also face a crisis. What made the American higher education system great was not just its Ivy League schools but its land-grant state universities. Today, however, budget pressures at these institutions could alter the trajectory of education, the labor force, and our politics for years.

Land-grant universities got their start in 1862, when the federal government donated land to the states, facilitating the creation of these schools. The idea, as the Department of Agriculture puts it, was to help “working class citizens” secure “equal access to higher education with a focus on farming and mechanical skills.” These were the skills most in need at the time. In 1900, for instance, just under half of Americans worked in agriculture. The resulting universities adapted their offerings over the years, the better to suit a changing economy. Today, many have become top-tier research institutions, with extensive libraries that rival those of the Ivy League.

I grew up in a town dominated by a land-grant university—the University of Connecticut. UConn is now best known for basketball and for academics in other areas, but its campus is still dominated by dairy barns and acres of fields that are part of the agricultural program it still offers. It’s a relatively small program today: in 2020, fewer than 10 percent of the university’s 18,658 undergrads were enrolled in the agricultural school or studied agriculture and natural resources. But the amount of land dedicated to the program is a reminder that UConn was founded to teach agricultural skills to people of diverse means. Like many land-grant universities, UConn eventually became the flagship state university, educating the best of Connecticut’s residents who lacked either the desire or the resources to attend a private or out-of-state university. Like many of its land-grant peers, UConn juxtaposes past and present, its cow barns coexisting with luxurious housing, state-of-the-art sports facilities (even for non-athletes), and large, modern buildings that accommodate engineering, computer science, and chemistry departments.

Also like many of its peers, UConn faces a budget crisis that has been a long time coming. Enrollment has stagnated over the past decade, and less money is arriving from the state. The National Education Association estimates that UConn gets $1,569.44 less per student from the state since 2008—and this in a blue state, with a Democratic governor. The school has saddled itself with debt from its many capital improvements, underfunded pensions, and has growing administrative bloat. To close a $70 million budget deficit, the administration is proposing a 15 percent budget cut across all departments.

State schools around the country confront similar challenges after years of over-building and over-hiring (especially in administration) amid shrinking pools of incoming students and declining state budgets. How they handle these problems will shape the future of education in each state. West Virginia University (WVU), for example, avoided across-the-board cuts by mostly targeting humanities departments instead.

Universities have made strategic errors, but some of their problems are the result of an economy in transition. Just as the country’s evolution away from agriculture forced land-grant universities to adapt, the new tech economy requires a more educated labor force that needs adaptable, technical, and interpersonal skills. Universities still have not fully adapted to this economy. In fact, the turn to hard-left politics in some academic departments suggests the opposite—which, in turn, may lead even more students and taxpayers to be skeptical of their value. But in contrast with private universities, land-grant universities still have a mission to train state residents with the skills they need at a reasonable price. And this mission requires that the schools make some tough choices.

WVU and UConn suggest two different approaches that cash-strapped schools may take in the years ahead. Red states, feeling more alienated by the political turn that the humanities and social sciences have made, will be less inclined to fund those departments. Blue states, also under budget pressure, may be more inclined to apply across-the-board cuts. The result could be that students in red states will get a lower-quality humanities education (if they get one at all) but a better STEM education. Students in blue states would have better access to more fields but a relatively lower-quality education in an area like STEM.

It’s not clear which choice, if either, will prove the wiser, because how technology will evolve remains unknown. It may seem that the more vocational, tech-heavy approach will win out. But humanities departments may impart the critical-thinking and communication skills invaluable in an AI economy. True, it doesn’t seem like humanities departments have been imparting such skills of late. But the problem isn’t that the humanities aren’t useful; it’s that humanities programs shirked their mission by becoming overtly political and less rigorous. If they respond to the growing budget and political pressures by returning to their roots, they could give blue-state students an advantage. If they keep on their current path, then students at red state schools may wind up better off—and the state you grow up in could determine the kind of college education you receive.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images


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