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Land-Grant Colleges and Universities

America's land-grant colleges and universities were brought into being through the Morrill Act of 1862. This unprecedented federal legislation supported a new vision for higher education flowing from a confluence of agricultural, industrial, scientific, political and educational interests in the years before the U.S. Civil War.

By 1873, 26 land-grant colleges and universities were in operation; by 1900, 65; by 1975, 72; and by 2000, 106 (see Table 1). As these institutions developed, they influenced American higher education (and its more than 4,000 postsecondary institutions) well out of proportion to their number. According to the scholar Clark Kerr, the grant movement had a profound effect on the modern American university system and shaped its development throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, U.S. land-grant colleges and universities had become a model for developing nations seeking to harness their own institutions of higher learning to promote economic development and higher standards of living. The motives typically attributed to the land-grant college movement include the democratization of higher education to serve the working class; the development of an educational system designed to meet utilitarian and "useful" ends; and a desire to emphasize the emerging applied sciences, particularly agricultural science and engineering.

New scholarship has shown that before the Civil War a number of American colleges had begun to accommodate these emerging needs. But these institutions were local in orientation and lacked the collective ability to call attention to the ways in which they were adapting to the demands of a growing nation. By contrast, the land-grant colleges were the outgrowth of a movement that culminated in conscious, organized action to affect federal and state policy. What made the land-grant colleges unique in American higher education was their exclusive relationship with the federal government and a shared set of obligations to their sponsoring states.

The 1850s saw unrelated efforts by Jonathan B. Turner, a professor at Illinois College, and U.S. Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont to champion bills calling for federally sponsored agricultural or industrial colleges, but these initiatives failed. Morrill's penultimate bill passed Congress in 1859, but it was vetoed by President James Buchanan–largely on the grounds that a federal role in education was unconstitutional.

The Morrill Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, granted vast holdings of federal lands to states based on the size of their congressional delegations. The lands were to be sold to provide an endowment for the establishment of "at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life." Most states did a poor job of selling their lands, however. The meager profits used for the endowments were insufficient to sustain these growing educational institutions, which offered free tuition but had yet to receive any state funds.

The first institutions to function as land-grant colleges during the Civil War were two agricultural schools that had been chartered by their respective states in 1855: Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania (now The Pennsylvania State University). By 1873, twenty-four land-grant institutions enrolled 2,600 students–about 13 percent of the total U.S. collegiate population. Despite this early success, the quarter-century following the Civil War was a dismal period for land-grant colleges. Their facilities were sparse and primitive, and critics began to marshal their forces. Congress launched an investigation, which vindicated the schools. The farmers' organization, the Grange, launched a similar inquest, condemning the colleges for their failure to attract agricultural students. Well into the twentieth century, engineering–not agriculture–was the most popular course of study at land-grant schools.

Land-grant colleges turned the corner from struggle to stability around 1890, chiefly because of two federal acts. The Hatch Act of 1887 established and annually funded agricultural experiment (research) stations at land-grant colleges. Then came the Morrill Act of 1890, best known for giving states the right to designate "separate-but-equal" land-grant colleges for blacks. Soon after this, seventeen such schools were operating in Southern and border states. But the act's main purpose was to create annual federal appropriations to support general educational programs, from English to engineering. This dependable flow of funds provided the long-sought financial foundation the colleges needed and encouraged state governments to make annual appropriations as well. The pivotal figure in these legislative victories was George W. Atherton, president of The Pennsylvania State College. When his lobbying force of land-grant college presidents and agricultural scientists congealed in 1887 into the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment



Stations–the first formal organization of peer higher education institutions in America–Atherton was elected its first president.

Since 1900, land-grant institutions have been strengthened by more than a dozen federal acts. For example, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established the Cooperative Extension Service in agriculture and home economics, to be carried out by land-grant in stitutions in connection with U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eighty years later, in 1994, the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act conferred land-grant status on twenty-nine Native American colleges.

The major land-grant universities are powerhouses of research and graduate education. Of the top twenty institutions in total research-and-development spending for fiscal 1998, eleven (55%) were land-grant universities, according to the National Science Foundation. Of the top twenty institutions awarding the most earned doctorates in fiscal 1998, twelve (60%) were land-grant institutions. The fruits of these research and graduate programs have profoundly benefited the world. The production of pure uranium, pioneering developments in television and the transistor, advances in meteorology, the field ion microscope and the cyclotron, the isolation of helium, new plant strains resistant to disease and insects–these and much more have come from land-grant institutions.

The land-grant college movement has forged an enduring legacy. Egalitarianism and educational populism, practical or useful education, applied science and research, public service and outreach, and, perhaps most importantly, the idea that the federal government has a key role to play in educational policy–these tenets have become generalized throughout the whole of American higher education.


ANDERSON, G. LESTER, ed. 1976. Land-Grant Universities and Their Continuing Challenge. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

CROSS, COY F., II. 1999. Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

EDDY, EDWARD D., JR. 1957. Colleges for our Land and Time: The Land-Grant Idea in American Education. New York: Harper.

EDMOND, JOSEPH B. 1978. The Magnificent Charter: The Origin and Role of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press.

GEIGER, ROGER L., ed. 2000. The American College in the Nineteenth Century. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

KERR, CLARK. 1982. The Uses of the University, 3rd edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MARCUS, ALAN I. 1985. Agricultural Science and the Quest for Legitimacy: Farmers, Agricultural Colleges, and Experiment Stations, 1870–1890. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

NEVINS, ALLAN. 1962. The State Universities and Democracy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

ROSS, EARLE D. 1942. Democracy's College: The Land-Grant Movement in the Formative Stage. Ames: Iowa State College Press.

WILLIAMS, ROGER L. 1991. The Origins of Federal Support for Higher Education: George W. Atherton and the Land-Grant College Movement. University Park: Pennsylvania State Press.


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