What is a Land Grant University?

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If you have searched the list of colleges and universities in the US, you have probably come across the term “Land Grant University” and wondered what the designation meant. Schools with that designation are different from other universities and colleges in several ways. To understand this unique educational concept, you must start with a definition of the term.

What Does the Term Mean?

According to Wikipedia, these are schools that have been established as a result of a gift, or “grant,” of land or cash from the federal government to the states where they are located. The original bill that established the grant said schools were to “focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering (though without excluding classical studies) as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class.” This was meant to define a mission distinct from other universities at the time that focused on “abstract” liberal arts curriculum.

History of the Grant

In 1857, Justin Smith Morrill introduced a bill to Congress that was aimed at creating schools which could turn out graduates equipped to utilize manufacturing technology new at the time and solid practices in agriculture to address harsh economic realities in the country. President James Buchannan vetoed the bill. In 1861, Morrill resubmitted the bill and it passed into law in 1862. It gave federally controlled land to the states to sell in order to raise funding for the establishment of practical universities.

Iowa was the first state to take advantage of the Morrill Act by designating previously-existing Iowa State Agricultural College as a land-grant school. The first school actually established under the act was Kansas State University. In 1890 Congress passed a second Morrill Act to address the needs of former Confederate states. The funding was made available to the southern states with the stipulation that race could not be a criterion for admission or that they must establish a second land grant institution for persons “of color.” That program awarded grants of land or cash.

How are These Schools Different?

The primary reason for the existence of the universities was to educate people in areas where practical educational experiences did not exist. The website Land Grant Impact explains that present universities with the designation of “land grant” have a threefold mission. The first focus has not changed; the schools are to provide education in the key areas of agriculture, science and engineering as well as liberal arts. There are a few private schools in this system like Cornell, the University of Delaware and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but most of the schools that began under the Morrill Act have become public universities with wide-reaching fields of study. Aside from the primary mission, the land grant schools provide research into the focal areas. A third mission is to disseminate free and accessible education to the communities where the schools exist. These communities also are to benefit from the economic contributions of the universities.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created cooperative extension agencies that offer non-credit informal courses to the public. You may be familiar with the 4-H program, which is one of the programs instituted under this act. There are more than 2,900 extension agencies nationwide that offer courses and respond to general queries about nutrition, agriculture and other related issues.

Today, these schools offer many of the same degree programs as do liberal arts universities. Their tradition of community education and involvement remains a big part of their mission, however. A Land Grant University is connected to the community where it exists in many ways, and that is its strength.

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