Symposium | 16 for ’16

A New Morrill Act

By Austan Goolsbee Newton Minow

Tagged budgetGovernmentJobs

As technological changes disrupted longstanding industries during a time when the government was operating in a tight budgetary environment, the United States nevertheless found a creative way to dramatically expand training and education opportunities for its people. The program succeeded to an unparalleled degree. But that was more than 150 years ago.

The program was the Morrill Act, which granted land to the states for the purpose of using the proceeds to endow what we know now as land-grant colleges. It is time we relearn the lesson of history and revive the Morrill Act for the twenty-first century. Just as it did in Abraham Lincoln’s time, the federal government should sell some of its land and property holdings to fund the training of the American workforce. 

In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, even as the nation fretted over its own survival, the country enacted a law that launched one of the most important long-term growth policies in our history. The day after he signed the Pacific Railway Act, giving millions of acres to the railroads, President Lincoln signed the Land-Grant College Act, also known as the Morrill Act, after its sponsor, Republican Congressman (and later Senator) Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont.

The original Morrill Act focused on preparing workers for the practical, high-skill jobs available at the time—what it referred to as “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” (A second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, targeting the former Confederate states.) Over time, the land-grant colleges grew into some of our greatest institutions of higher learning and research in all sorts of new fields. The point was to train the nation for a changing economy. It was a similar idea to that behind the original Northwest Ordinance in the 1780s, which provided federal lands to fund public education. It was the same idea during World War II, when we passed the GI Bill to avoid the mistake made after World War I, when veterans returned home to find meager economic opportunities. The GI Bill funded an entire generation of skilled professionals and set the stage for the emergence of U.S. economic dominance.

Reviving the Morrill Act would allow us to sell federal property and land to create an endowment for training workers.

Today, we face another compelling need. The economy has become dependent on an increasingly highly skilled workforce, yet the growth in educational attainment rates of American workers has slowed dramatically. Many other nations have passed us in the breadth of their skilled training—more industrial apprentices as well as more college graduates. The incomes of our ordinary workers have stalled and, by some measures, have not risen in real terms in more than two decades. Even with a record number of job vacancies reported in the country, individual employers repeatedly say they have serious difficulties finding the skilled workers those job vacancies require. Research shows that better-educated, better-trained people have better chances of finding a job, and that the jobs they get pay thousands of dollars more each year. The government should be doing everything it can to get American workers the skills they need to support their families, develop their careers, and succeed in the new economy.

But how do we fund such a monumental undertaking? The normal budget process of the federal government is deeply broken at the moment. There is little hope at present of bipartisan agreement on a national training agenda funded out of general tax revenue. One can only imagine how many land-grant colleges would have gotten off the ground if they had to reauthorize their budgets every year in today’s political environment. Reviving the Morrill Act would allow us to sell federal property and land to create an endowment for training American workers and get this critical issue out of the budget quagmire in Washington. The federal government actually owns 28 percent of all the land in the United States—some 640 million acres. It has more than 360 million square feet of office space including, by one Congressional Research Service estimate, more than 77,000 underutilized buildings. While no official balance sheet values these holdings, some estimates have put the total value at over $100 trillion. The idea of the Morrill Act was to take some of the physical bounty of the nation and transform that into a lasting endowment for the people. We can follow that model again.

Two features of the Land-Grant Acts are relevant here. First, the federal government did not establish or run the schools itself. It identified a national interest in training, and it supported an infrastructure to provide it. But the states came up with the approaches. Some of the institutions that received money were already established. Some were new. Some were public. Some were private. They just needed to fulfill the public education mission embodied in the grant. The new Morrill Act should follow that example.

Second, the land-grant colleges did not, primarily, use land grants as locations to build. Indeed, many received land grants not in their state. Instead, the proceeds from selling the land funded the schools. This remains a sensible approach. Large amounts of federal property and land are held in Western states such as Nevada, but the need for skills exists beyond just those states.

Of course, there are many specific details to work out to restart a new Morrill Act. Would its purpose be to enhance the existing community colleges in the country? Would it include efforts toward early childhood education (which a growing body of research suggests has a significant impact on people’s job skills later in life)? How could we change the impediments to selling federal property that have left us with billions of dollars’ worth of unwanted buildings that have taken decades to be sold? These and many others are real concerns. But at this moment, this opportunity is too important to ignore.

As we charge deeper into the century, no fact is more compelling for our country than this: The people are our nation’s greatest endowment. We live in what University of Chicago Nobel laureate Gary Becker called “the age of human capital,” an age in which the nation’s most valuable resources are the knowledge and skills of its citizens. Remember what Justin Smith Morrill believed about education and training: “A spark will be lighted which may illumine the whole land.”

From the Symposium

16 for ’16

With electoral thoughts dancing in our heads, we asked contributors to give us one idea—targeted, straightforward—for the next administration to pursue.

Austan Goolsbee & Newton Minow on a new Morrill Act • Anne-Marie Slaughter on reforming our national security bureaucracy • Juliette Kayyem on rethinking disaster relief • Marc Mauer on a 20-year maximum for prison sentences • and much more


A Lead Agency for Every Security Initiative

By Anne-Marie Slaughter


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Austan Goolsbee is the Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama.

Newton Minow is senior counsel at Sidley Austin in Chicago and served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Kennedy.

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