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Land-grant university

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Logo for the centennial of land-grant universities

A land-grant university (also called land-grant college or land-grant institution) is an institution of higher education in the United States designated by a state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890,[1] or a beneficiary under the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act of 1994.[2] There are 57 institutions which fall under the 1862 Act, 19 under the 1890 Act, and 35 under the 1994 Act.

With Southerners absent during the Civil War, Republicans in Congress set up a funding system that would allow states to modernize their weak higher educational systems. The Morrill Act of 1862 provided federal land to states to establish colleges. Ownership went to the schools which sold it to businesses and farmers. The law specified the mission of these institutions: to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering—although "without excluding other scientific and classical studies."[3][4] This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of existing colleges which offered a narrow Classical curriculum based heavily on Latin, Greek and mathematics.[5]

The Morrill Act quickly stimulated the creation of new state colleges and the expansion of existing institutions to include these new mandate. In every state by 1914, the land-grant colleges gained political support and expanded the definition and scope of university curricula to include advanced research and outreach across the state. The federal Hatch Act of 1887 established an agricultural experiment station at each school to conduct original research related to the needs of improving agriculture, as well as a system to disseminate information to the farmers eager to innovate. By 1917 Congress funded the teaching of agricultural subjects in the new public high schools that were opening. The Second Morrill Act of 1890 further expanded federal funding for the land-grant colleges, and funded the founding of new land-grant colleges for African Americans (now called Historically black colleges and universities or HBCU). The 1994 expansion gave land-grant status and benefits to several tribal colleges and universities.[2] Most of the state schools were coeducational—indeed they led the way in that reform. A new department was added: home economics. However, relatively few women attended and they had second-class status.[6][7]

Ultimately, most land-grant schools became large state universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational and research opportunities. Some land-grant colleges are private, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Tuskegee University.[8]

Land-grant universities


The concept of federal support for agricultural and technical educational institutions in every state first rose to national attention through the efforts of Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois in the late 1840s. However the first land-grant bill was introduced in Congress by Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont in 1857.[9] The bill passed in 1859, but was vetoed by President James Buchanan. Morrill resubmitted his bill in 1861, and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in 1862. The law gave every state and territory 30,000 acres per member of Congress to be used in establishing a "land grant" university. Over 17 million acres were granted through the federal land-grant law.[10]

Recent scholarship has emphasized that many of these federal public lands had been purchased from Indigenous peoples through treaties and land cessions, often after they were defeated in war.[11][12][13] Approximately 25% of the individual land parcels had not been purchased at all; treaties with tribes in California, for example, had been placed under seal by the U.S. Senate and were unratified at the time of the land grant.[13]

Upon passage of the federal land-grant law in 1862, Iowa was the first state legislature to accept its provisions, on September 11, 1862.[14] Iowa designated the State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) as the land-grant college on March 29, 1864.[15][16]

The first land-grant institution open under the Act was Kansas State University, which was established on February 16, 1863, and opened on September 2, 1863.[17][18]

A second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, aimed at the former Confederate states. This act required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color.[19] This latter clause had the effect of facilitating segregated education, although it also provided higher educational opportunities for persons of color who otherwise would not have had them.[20] Among the seventy colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today's historically black colleges and universities. Though the 1890 Act granted cash instead of land, it granted colleges under that act the same legal standing as the 1862 Act colleges; hence the term "land-grant college" properly applies to both groups.

Later on, other colleges such as the University of the District of Columbia and the "1994 land-grant colleges" for Native Americans were also awarded cash by Congress in lieu of land to achieve "land-grant" status.

In imitation of the land-grant colleges' focus on agricultural and mechanical research, Congress later established programs of sea grant colleges (aquatic research, in 1966), space grant colleges (space research, in 1988), and sun grant colleges (sustainable energy research, in 2003).

West Virginia State University, a historically black university, is the only current land-grant university to have lost land-grant status (when desegregation cost it its state funding in 1957) and subsequently regain it, which happened in 2001.

The land-grant college system has been seen as a major contributor in the faster growth rate of the U.S. economy that led to its overtaking the United Kingdom as economic superpower, according to research by faculty from the State University of New York.[21]

The three-part mission of the land-grant university continues to evolve in the twenty-first century. What originally was described as "teaching, research, and service" was renamed "learning, discovery, and engagement" by the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. It was later recast as "talent, innovation, and place" by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).[22]

Historians once presented a "Romantic" interpretation of the origins as a product of a working class democratic demand for access to higher education. Recent scholarship has abandoned this approach, showing there was little such demand. Instead middle class reformers were responsible because they thought that modern capitalism needed a better educated working class.[23]

State law precedents[edit]

Postal Service commemorative stamp

Prior to the enactment of the Morrill Act in 1862, individual states established institutions of higher education with grants of land. The first state to do so was Georgia, which set aside 40,000 acres for higher education in 1784 and incorporated the University of Georgia in 1785.[24]

The College Lands were a tract of land in Ohio that the Congress in 1787 donated for the support of a university. The Ohio state legislature assigned the lands in 1804 to the creation of a new school, Ohio University.[25]

Michigan State University was chartered under state law as a agricultural land-grant institution on February 12, 1855, as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, receiving an appropriation of 14,000 acres (57 km2) of state-owned land.[26] The Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania (later to become The Pennsylvania State University) followed as a state agricultural land-grant school on February 22 of that year.[27] Michigan State and Penn State were subsequently designated as the federal land-grant colleges for their states in 1863. In 1955, the U.S. Postal service issued a commemorative stamp to celebrate the two institutions as "first of the land-grant type institutions to be founded."[28]

Hatch Act and Smith–Lever Act[edit]

The mission of the land-grant universities was expanded by the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided federal funds to states to establish a series of agricultural experiment stations under the direction of each state's land-grant college, as well as pass along new information, especially in the areas of soil minerals and plant growth. The outreach mission was further expanded by the Smith–Lever Act of 1914 to include cooperative extension—the sending of agents into rural areas to help bring the results of agricultural research to the end users. Beyond the original land grants, each land-grant college receives annual federal appropriations for research and extension work on the condition that those funds are matched by state funds.


While today's land-grant universities were initially known as land-grant colleges, only a few of the more than 70 institutions that developed from the Morrill Acts retain "College" in their official names; most are universities.

The University of the District of Columbia received land-grant status in 1967 and a $7.24 million endowment (USD) in lieu of a land grant. In a 1972 Special Education Amendment, American Samoa, Guam, Micronesia, Northern Marianas, and the Virgin Islands each received $3 million.

In 1994, 29 tribal colleges and universities became land-grant institutions under the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994. As of 2008, 32 tribal colleges and universities have land-grant status in the U.S. Most of these colleges grant two-year degrees. Six are four-year institutions, and two offer a master's degree.

Land acknowledgment statements and criticism[edit]

In the early 21st century, a growing number of land-grant universities have placed land acknowledgment statements on their websites in recognition of the fact that their institutions occupy lands that were once traditional territories of Native American peoples.[29][30] For example, the University of Illinois System states,

These lands were the traditional birthright of indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed and who have faced two centuries of struggle for survival and identity in the wake of dispossession. We hereby acknowledge the ground on which we stand so that all who come here know that we recognize our responsibilities to the peoples of that land and that we strive to address that history so that it guides our work in the present and the future.[31]

Another example comes from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln which states,

The University of Nebraska is a public, land-grant institution with campuses and programs across the State that reside on the past, present, and future homelands of the Pawnee, Ponca, Oto-Missouria, Omaha, Dakota, Lakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kaw Peoples, as well as the relocated Ho Chunk (Winnebago), Iowa, and Sac and Fox Peoples.[32]

In an article in High Country News, Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone criticized such statements for failing to acknowledge the true breadth of the benefits derived by European Americans from formerly Native American land. They pointed out that land grants were used not only for campus sites but also included many other parcels that universities rented or sold to generate funds that formed the basis of their endowments.[13] Lee and Ahtone also pointed out that only a few land-grant universities have undertaken significant efforts at reconciliation with respect to the latter types of parcels. For instance, they could identify what portions of their current resources are traceable to Native American lands and reallocate some of those resources to help Native Americans.[13]


Land-grant universities are not to be confused with sea grant colleges (a program instituted in 1966), space grant colleges (instituted in 1988), or sun grant colleges (instituted in 2003). In some states, the land-grant missions for agricultural research and extension have been relegated to a statewide agency of the university system rather than the original land-grant campus; an example is the Texas A&M University System. Its agricultural missions, including the agricultural college at the system's main campus, are now under the umbrella of Texas A&M AgriLife.

Relevant legislation[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Collins, John Williams; O'Brien, Nancy P., eds. (2003). The Greenwood Dictionary of Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 227. ISBN 0-89774-860-3.
  2. ^ a b Greenwood Dictionary of Education. 2003. p. 235.
  3. ^ 7 U.S.C. § 304
  4. ^ What Is A Land-Grant College? (PDF), Washington State University, archived (PDF) from the original on November 6, 2020, retrieved July 12, 2011
  5. ^ John R. Thelin, A history of American higher education (JHU Press, 2011) pp 41–83.
  6. ^ Thelin, pp. 97-98.
  7. ^ Nathan M. Sorber, Land-Grant Colleges and Popular Revolt: The Origins of the Morrill Act and the Reform of Higher Education (2018) pp.155–171.
  8. ^ Brunner, Henry Sherman (1962). Land-grant Colleges and Universities, 1862-1962. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Archived from the original on September 4, 2022. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  9. ^ Earle D. Ross, "The 'Father' of the Land-Grant College" Agricultural History (1938) 12#2 pp. 151-186 online
  10. ^ Cross II, Coy F. (1997). Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press. ISBN 0-87013-508-2.
  11. ^ Martin, Michael V. (February 18, 2018). "A Time for Substance: Confronting Funding Inequities at Land-Grant Institutions". Tribal College Journal. 29 (3). Archived from the original on August 1, 2020. Retrieved November 28, 2019.
  12. ^ Nash, Margaret A. (November 2019). "Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession". History of Education Quarterly. 59 (4): 437–467. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.31.
  13. ^ a b c d Lee, Robert; Ahtone, Tristan (March 30, 2020). "Land-Grab Universities". High Country News. Archived from the original on April 19, 2020. Retrieved June 14, 2024.
  14. ^ "History of Iowa State: Time Line, 1858–1874". Iowa State University. 2006. Archived from the original on May 13, 2009. Retrieved July 9, 2009.
  15. ^ "Sesquicentennial Message from President". Iowa State University. Archived from the original on January 11, 2012. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  16. ^ "Iowa State: 150 Points of Pride". Iowa State University. Archived from the original on June 21, 2015. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  17. ^ "The National Schools of Science", The Nation: 409, November 21, 1867, archived from the original on April 7, 2022, retrieved November 14, 2020
  18. ^ Roger L. Geiger & Nathan M. Sorber, The Land-Grant Colleges and the Reshaping of American Higher Education (Transaction Press, 2013)
  19. ^ 7 U.S.C. § 323
  20. ^ Debra Reid, "People's Colleges for Other Citizens: Black Land-Grant Institutions and the Politics of Educational Expansion in the Post-Civil War Era", in Science as Service: Establishing and Reformulating American Land-Grant Universities, 1865-1930 p. 144 (2015).
  21. ^ Ehrlich, Isaac; Cook, Adam; Yin, Yong (2018). "What Accounts for the US Ascendancy to Economic Superpower by the Early Twentieth Century? The Morrill Act–Human Capital Hypothesis". Journal of Human Capital. 12 (2): 233–281. doi:10.1086/697512. S2CID 158105754.
  22. ^ Gavazzi, S. M.; Gee, E. G. (2018). Land-grant universities for the future: Higher education for the public good. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  23. ^ Nathan M. Sorber and Roger L. Geiger, "The Welding of Opposite Views: Land-Grant Historiography at 150 Years" in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (2014) pp.385-422.
  24. ^ "History of UGA". University of Georgia. Archived from the original on October 30, 2019. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
  25. ^ William E. Peters, Ohio Lands and Their Subdivision (1918). online
  26. ^ Widder, Keith R. (2005). Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-grant Philosophy, 1855-1925. Michigan State University Press.
  27. ^ Peter L. Moran; Roger L. Williams. "Saving the Land Grant for the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania". In Geiger, Roger L.; Sorber, Nathan M. (eds.). Land Grant Colleges and the Reshaping of American Higher Education. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. pp. 105–130.
  28. ^ United States. Office of Special Assistant to the Postmaster General (1966). Postage Stamps of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 149.
  29. ^ Nash, Margaret A. (November 2019). "Entangled Pasts: Land-Grant Colleges and American Indian Dispossession". History of Education Quarterly. 59 (4): 437–467. doi:10.1017/heq.2019.31.
  30. ^ Nash, Margaret A. (November 8, 2019). "The Dark History of Land-Grant Universities". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on December 3, 2019. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  31. ^ "Land Acknowledgement". University of Illinois System. Archived from the original on December 3, 2019. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  32. ^ "Recognizing the Land". University of Nebraska Lincoln. Archived from the original on November 5, 2021. Retrieved April 4, 2022.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, G. Lester. "The land-grant university and the urban condition." Education and Urban Society 5.1 (1972): 5-21.
  • Croft, Genevieve K. "The US land-grant university system: An overview." CRS Report (2019) online.
  • Geiger, Roger, and Nathan Sorber, eds. The land-grant colleges and the reshaping of American Higher Education (Transaction Press, 2017)
  • Mack, Elizabeth A., and Kevin Stolarick. "The gift that keeps on giving: Land-grant universities and regional prosperity." Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 32.3 (2014): 384-404.
  • Marcus, Alan I., Roger L. Geiger, et al. Science as Service: Establishing and Reformulating American Land-Grant Universities, 1865–1930 (2015)
  • Rasmussen, Wayne D. "The 1890 land-grant colleges and universities: A centennial overview." Agricultural History (1991). 65#2 168–172. online
  • Sorber, Nathan M. Land-Grant Colleges and Popular Revolt: The Origins of the Morrill Act and the Reform of Higher Education (Cornell UP, 2018)
  • Sorber, Nathan M. "A history of the American land-grant universities and regional development." Handbook of universities and regional development (Edward Elgar, 2019) pp. 11–28.
  • Sorber, Nathan M., and Roger L. Geiger. "The welding of opposite views: Land-grant historiography at 150 years." Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (Springer Netherlands, 2013). 385-422.
  • Sternberg, Robert J., ed. The modern land-grant university (Purdue University Press, 2014). online
  • Williams, Roger l. The origins of federal support for higher education: George W. Atherton and the land-grant college movement (1991), promoting the 1890 law.
  • Eddy, Edward D. Colleges for Our Land and Time: The Land-Grant Idea in American Education (1957);
  • Edmund, Joseph B. Magnificent Charter: The Origin and Role of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (1978), a useful short history of major aspects. online
  • Nevins, Allan. State Universities and Democracy (1962);
  • Ross, Earl D. Democracy’s college: The land-grant movement in the formative stage (1942) online reprint
  • Ten Brook, Andrew. American State Universities, Their Origin and Progress; a History of Congressional University Land-grants (1875). online old survey

External links[edit]