Much of early American history was based on a rejection of what was and creating systems for what should be. The educational system was no different.
In the latter part of the 19th century, there was dissatisfaction with the way that university systems continued to cater to the wealthy elite rather than providing services and education for working class citizens. Accordingly, the land-grant university system was established in 1862 with the Morrill Act of 1862 which allocated funding and support for the establishment of colleges that would make higher education available to “everyone” [i.e. White males] at an affordable cost.
Providing opportunities for practical education, especially in the field of agriculture and mechanics, was expected to “solidify American economic infrastructure” and “democratize American education”. The general aim was to improve the overall welfare of the country.
This shift in education can be understood as the point at which liberal education became mainstream in America, largely due to the inexpensive land provided for research purposes that limited financial stresses to the universities.
Since the benefits of the original Morrill Act were not explicitly extended to people of color, a second iteration was passed in 1890 which required that [formerly Confederate] states demonstrate that race was not a factor impacting admission to a university or designate land-grant universities specifically for persons of color.
To further promote the mission of land-grant universities, the Hatch Act of 1887 served to provide federal funds for states to establish agricultural experiment stations. These stations helped to gather information about soil quality, plant growth, and other matters related to production for use by the land-grant universities.
In 1914, the scope of land-grant universities was further broadened by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which helped to send extension agents to rural areas with the intention of sharing the results of agricultural research with agricultural communities.
Tribal colleges and universities were offered land-grant status in 1994 with the passing of the Improving America’s School Act of 1994. Since these educational establishments are on tribal lands, they were given cash rather than land along with their new statuses.
At present, land-grant universities continue to receive federal funding for research and extension work with the stipulation that federal funds are matched by state funds. While the services provided by these universities and their networks of extension is undoubtedly valuable, there is growing concern about the relevance of these institutions due to increasingly specialized production practices, alliances with large private organizations, and an overemphasis on research [rather than teaching]. However, these established networks of knowledge-sharing offer an array of opportunities for innovation that is capable of meeting the changing needs of the 21st century.
- Parr, D. M., Trexler, C. J., Khanna, N. R., & Battisti, B. T. (2007). Designing sustainable agriculture education: Academics’ suggestions for an undergraduate curriculum at a land grant university. Agriculture and Human Values, 24(4), 523-533.
- Schuh, G. E. (1986). Revitalizing land grant universities: It’s time to regain relevance. Choices, 1(2), 6-10.