The Morrill Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. It authorized the establishment of land-grant colleges in every state of the Union and specified that each state be granted 30,000 acres of public land for each member of Congress and Senate for "the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college in each state where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific or classical studies, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life." A slightly different version had been vetoed by President James Buchanan in 1859, the opposition asserting that the proposed land grants would be an invasion of the domestic rights of the states.
Scrip–certificates of possession–were issued on federal lands in new states when no public lands in established states were available. How the land or scrip was to be disposed of was left to state discretion, but the grants did not turn out to be the bonanza that the founders had hoped for. The pressure for immediate funds glutted the market with huge blocks of scrip. The concurrent railroad grants and the inauguration of homesteading in 1862 depressed land prices, and the unsettled financial state of the nation in the 1860s and 1870s further lowered land values. State officials often seemed to have little appreciation of the possibilities of the act and used the grants to secure ready money by quick sale. Established states–Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio in particular–were inefficient in disposing of the land, but nine other states received more than the established minimum of $1.25 per acre. Western states generally managed their land above the minimum price. In Nebraska, for example, no school land was disposed of for less than $7.00 an acre.
In time, every state and three U.S. territories established new colleges or combined the land-grant college with existing institutions. Twenty separate colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts were founded, eight in the Great Plains. They were Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College, Fort Collins (1870); Kansas State Agricultural College, Manhattan (1863); Montana State College, Bozeman (1893); New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Las Cruces (1889); North Dakota Agricultural College, Fargo (1890); Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, Stillwater (1891); South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Brookings (1881); and Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, College Station (1871). Two states in the Great Plains used the federal grants to found state universities. They were the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) in 1869 and the University of Wyoming (Laramie) in 1887.
The importance of the land-grant college to American society is hard to exaggerate. The curriculum of American higher education was broadened to include not just the orthodox classics and mathematics but also mechanical, agricultural, and other subjects of assumed immediate utility. The student body was widened to include not just the Christian gentlemen whom Christian colleges traditionally prepared for public service but all persons who through ability and ambition might contribute in a variety of ways to the public welfare. Through the influence of the land-grant colleges and state universities, high schools were established, and their standards were set across the nation. The colleges stimulated a spirit of regional pride centered on these local schools. Women as well as men were invited to attend by the introduction of courses in home economics, and coeducation became standard. Both federally and locally, society was committed to the support of universities, whereas earlier universities and colleges had relied heavily though not exclusively on religious a.liations. Education was secularized. Research became a requisite part of higher education through the model of scientific investigations. With the Hatch Act of 1887, which established experiment stations at land-grant colleges, the federal government assumed some financial responsibility for both general and specialized research. The various states became similarly committed to the support of both basic and applied research. The Jeffersonian ideal of an aristocracy of talent was given a practical means of achievement. The land-grant college was, and still is, a major agency for upward mobility in a democratic world and a lasting and fundamental part of Great Plains education.
Robert E. Knoll University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Eddy, Edward Danforth, Jr. Colleges for Our Land and Time: The Land-Grant Idea in American Education. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957.
Nevins, Allan. The State Universities and Democracy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962.
Ross, Earl D. Democracy's Colleges: The Land- Grant Movement in the Formative States. New York: Arno Press, 1969.