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  • Repaying a Debt?The Performance of Morrill Act University Beneficiaries as Measured by Native Enrollment and Graduation Rates
  • Donna Feir (bio) and Maggie E. C. Jones (bio)

the 1862 morrill act transferred "public" lands to several states and territories for the benefit of establishing colleges. The act is widely viewed as a watershed event in the development of the United States' postsecondary system (Goldin and Katz 2008; Key 1996). Recent quasi-experimental work by economists Isaac Ehrlich, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin (2018) suggests that the Morrill Act produced sizable educational and economic returns that were pivotal in the development of the U.S. economy.

Absent from discussions of the Morrill Act are connections to Indigenous dispossession. The Land-Grab Universities (LGU) project (Lee and Ahtone 2020) directly connects the seizure and transfer of Indigenous land to the founding of a university system that has created economic returns to generations of Americans. While all universities benefit directly from the Indigenous lands on which their campuses are located, the university beneficiaries of the Morrill Act benefit in a very direct, traceable, and historically proximate fashion. This link makes the average economic marginalization and underrepresentation of Native students in the university system all the more problematic. Many notions of justice imply that universities whose endowments were seeded by Morrill Act lands have a greater obligation to current generations of Indigenous students whose ancestors were effectively deprived of their ability to provide opportunities for their children through the taking of their lands without fair compensation.1 We link the LGU database to the university-level data in the 2017–18 Integrated Post-secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database to explore whether land-grant universities have fulfilled this obligation. Do the universities that received endowments from Morrill Act lands benefit American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) students today in a proportionate fashion to their returns on Indigenous lands? [End Page 129]

The IPEDS Data and Linkage to the Land-Grab Universities Database

IPEDS is the key dataset on postsecondary institutions from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). All universities are required to provide data, including enrollments and graduation rates, to the NCES, which then compiles information consistently across postsecondary institutions. We link the IPEDS data to the data created by Lee and Ahtone using the name of the university that benefited from Morrill Act lands. Specifically, we link the IPEDS data to the Universities.csv in the LGU database using the variable UNITID and university name. When universities have multiple campuses, we use the primary campus listed in the "city" variable in the LGU database. While our method is imperfect in attaching funds raised from the Morrill Act for university endowments to only one campus, the choice to use the primary campus is the most methodologically straightforward.

We restrict attention to institutions covered by IPEDS Carnegie classifications 15, 16, 21, and 22, that is, research-intensive institutions that offer a wide range of baccalaureate programs and enroll graduate doctoral and master's degree students across a range of programs and disciplines. The chosen classifications cover all Morrill Act beneficiaries. This allows us to focus on universities that are similar to Morrill universities and ensures that any differences we observe between Morrill universities and other universities are not due to differences in university missions or sorts of degrees delivered.

The specific metrics we use from the IPEDS data are (1) total, undergraduate, and graduate enrollment rates of AIAN students (i.e., the proportion of all students enrolled who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native); (2) the proportion of graduates who are AIAN who complete their program within 150 percent of normal time (150 percent graduation rate); (3) the 150 percent graduation rate of AIAN students; and (4) the difference between the 150 percent graduation rate of white students and that of AIAN students.

Do Morrill Act Beneficiaries Enroll and Graduate a Greater Percentage of Indigenous Students as a Proportion of Their Student Base?

Indigenous students are generally underrepresented in the university system (Postsecondary National Policy Institute 2019). At all universities, only around 0.3 percent of fall enrollments in 2017–18 were identified as AIAN, while the AIAN population accounted for close to...


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