On a recent morning, students at Tufts University's Veterinary School in North Grafton near Worcester made the rounds. Inside the Intensive Care Unit, they clutch clipboards and check a dog's vitals.

"His temperature was down to 101.8,” a professor said. “He was noted to have some abdominal pain."

For the past 40 years, this school has been the only fully-accredited graduate veterinary program in New England. In 1978, the Commonwealth gave Tufts nearly 600 acres of land for $1.

Tufts converted the old state hospital here into a state-of-the-art veterinary school.

"It was going to be a prison, before it was going to be a vet school," said provost Deborah Kochevar.

Although Tufts has a $1.7 billion endowment, Kochevar said the university is financially unable to support its veterinary school without funding from the Commonwealth. The Legislature agrees.

"In general, veterinary education has been a duty of the state so most of the veterinary schools are located at big land-grant universities,” Kochevar explained. “Tufts is a different model."

Tufts argues it is meeting educational and economic needs. This year, the program admitted 98 students — 28 from Massachusetts.

Kochevar said Tufts graduates play an important role in the state.

"The economy of Massachusetts depends heavily upon pharmaceutical, medical device, R and D, innovation, and so veterinarians are a key player in that,” Kochevar said. “They are pathologists. They are laboratory and animal medicine veterinarians. All of those are pieces in the life sciences machine."

A degree from Tufts veterinary school is expensive. The sticker price is about $50,000 per year, and 15 percent of the state's $5 million investment covers scholarships for in-state students. The rest of the money goes to public health and bio-terrorism research.

At a time when states, including Massachusetts, have cut their budgets for public colleges, student activists question the Legislature's budget priorities.

"It's an issue if we're not providing the funding to keep the public system affordable," said Zac Bears, head of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts.

Bears would like to see the $5 million Tufts receives go to programs that encourage low-income students to enter high-demand fields like computer science, cyber security and engineering.

"I think redirecting the funding to public colleges to provide affordable educations in STEM fields would be a better choice than sending this money to a private college that has a lot of money," Bears said.

"This has been somewhat controversial. Most of my presidents, when I was commissioner, were against putting any money into this," said Richard Freeland, the former Massachusetts commissioner of Higher Education.

When the veterinary school was created, Freeland said, lawmakers debated whether the state needed a veterinary school.

"There was an agreement that there was a need and that rather than the state trying to do something on its own, the state would work with Tufts, and Tufts would create the school with some state support," Freeland recalled.

Forty years later, Tufts provost Deborah Kochevar is defending that continued state support.

"The public-private partnership here is saving the state a tremendous amount of money,” Kochevar said. “It's leveraging the quality of Tufts University to bring the quality of veterinary education in the state to where it should be."

Without this partnership, Tufts estimates, it would likely cost Massachusetts $150 million to start its own veterinary school.