The Land Grant System: At Work for Nebraska

When you enter a building on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln east campus, you'll find these words on the door:

"The Morrill Act of 1862 established a Land Grant University in each state where the Leading Object would be instruction
in agriculture and related fields."

"The land grant university system is really a very special thing, rooted in the absolute depths of the Civil War, when the country was at war with itself in literally every way," said John Owens, who served as NU vice president and Harlan Vice Chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources from 2001 until June 2010. "In the summer of 1862, Congress passed an act that established land grant colleges, which then grew into these wonderful land grant universities today," Owens said.

The land grant model was created to make education more affordable for a state's people through federal, state and county support for land grant institutions.

"The whole notion of the land grant model is having a responsibility, not only to deliver academic programs to students in the classroom and in the laboratory, but also having an obligation to take knowledge to the people of the state," Owens said. "It's been part of Nebraska from the very beginning, this notion of the people, the taxpayers who work in businesses and farms and ranches and in the professions, and expect their tax dollars to be well-spent, that they have taken it upon themselves to invest in the future of the state through making the University of Nebraska as strong as it can possibly be."

The taxpayers' partial financial support of the land grant system helps to make education affordable for people who live in that state or territory, but it goes a step further. The land grant system "extended" the reach of the land grant university to the rest of each state. In Nebraska, there are University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension offices in nearly every county in the state. Extension educators in these offices make university research available, free of charge, to anyone who requests information.

Dr. John Owens

Dr. John Owens


"In a knowledge-based economy, we want a strong, educated population here in Nebraska. The world is competitive today, and it's going to be more competitive tomorrow," Owens said. Generally speaking, he added, education gives people a broader viewpoint of the world and with that viewpoint, they are likely to make better decisions.

The Hatch Act of 1887 ensured that federal dollars would be invested in agricultural research, so each state and territory in 1887 received $10,000 in federal funds. That was a huge amount of money in 1887, Owens said, and the lure of those funds played a role in other states' interest in adopting the tenets of the land grant act.

From Owens' point of view, the federal government used money as a reason to get the states interested in supporting research, teaching and later, with the adoption of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Cooperative Extension. "The larger amount of the investment in traditional land grant programs comes from the state itself," Owens said. "They meet the match and then provide considerably more dollars than the basic match. But over time, the federal investment has grown to be so large that we all depend on those dollars." The funds are called 'formula funds' and according to Owens, "is about the only part of the federal funding system for the entire country where money comes to an educational enterprise based on a formula." The formula funds are allocated to various states in different proportions based on the size and importance of the state - particularly its agricultural importance.

Funds allocated by the state government are even more important, Owens said. "We simply could not open the door on an enterprise like this if we did not have those funds from the taxpayers of Nebraska."

County government funds also are extremely important, Owens said. The land-grant component of the university is very often delivered to the people through extension and very often, that delivery is through an extension office associated with a county. Extension offices are operated in 83 of Nebraska's 93 counties - the other 10 counties are in two-or three-county partnerships to provide extension services to each county's people. Nebraska's Unicameral, Owens said, now supports the salaries of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty who work in the extension offices, but each county provides office space and funds to run the office. "On any given day, some county, state or federal government has a budget problem, but over time it always seems to be worked out. It only gets worked out because these programs are important to people," he said.

The land grant mission extends to young people, too, in the national 4-H charter that is held by Congress and allocated to various land grant institutions in each state. Nebraska has 135,000 young people involved in 4-H, along with 10,000 volunteers, making Nebraska the state with the highest 4-H involvement per capita of any state in the country.

Nationally, the 4-H Foundation has a goal called One Million New Scientists. One Million New Ideas.™ which is intended to educate one million new scientists by 2013. To achieve that goal, 4-H is delivering educational programs to young people in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics - STEM education - which is a national focus. In Nebraska, the emphasis is on building and programming robots with the support of corporations and volunteer leaders.

It is expensive to fund and deliver university programs in science, technology and engineering, so scholarships for university students are "just huge" in making public education a bit more affordable for students, Owens said. "In agriculture and natural resources and related areas, the generosity of Nebraskans has just been phenomenal in how many scholarships we have and how important they are in the lives of the students." Even more will be needed in the future, however, because the world has become more competitive, Owens added.

An independent study by Battelle of Columbus, Ohio indicates that for every Nebraska tax dollar invested, there's a return of $15 in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources alone, Owens said.

"I believe this totally - the difference between an adequate public university and an excellent public university is always, always, always found in the generosity of its friends, its alumni and its clientele or supporters. Nebraskans have really stepped up to the plate in a big way to do that," he said.