Land-Grant Education

Jonathan Turner was educated at Yale, one of the nation’s most prestigious private universities.  After an education in classical literature, he moved to Illinois to teach at Illinois College.  In spite of his classical education, he was an early advocate for public higher education to serve the needs of working-class Americans.

Turner proposed that the federal government grant each state land that was owned by the federal government.  The land could then be sold, money being used to fund universities to teach agriculture, science, engineering, and military studies.

Turner’s proposal was drafted into legislation by Representative Morrill of Vermont in 1857.  The bill passed Congress in 1859 but was vetoed by President Buchannon.  The bill was passed again in 1866 and signed by President Lincoln.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Morrill Act only applied to the Northern States.  A second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 for the former Confederate States.  The law prohibited race from being considered in admissions unless a separate institution was created for students of color.  Most Confederate States created two land-grant universities.

The focus of land-grant colleges and universities was expanded in 1887 with the passage of the Hatch Act.  Funds were provided to states to create Agricultural Experiment Stations with the expectation that these units would work to support new agricultural practices.  The Smith-Lever Act provided for extension agents to be placed in rural areas.

The land-grant system of higher education has become the backbone of higher education in America.  It especially serves the American middle class.  Many of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) was initially established with land-grant funding.

The one unfortunate aspect of the land-grant system is that the lands that were initially granted by the federal government to fund the land-grant system were taken from indigenous people.  Many universities have acknowledged this, but it remains an unfortunate legacy of how indigenous people were treated.

Beginnings are often forgotten over time.  Few people today would know of the influence of one person in the creation of the land-grant concept.  The source of the lands that funded the land-grant system is also little known.  Like many beginnings, there are mixed forces at work in the origination.

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“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.”  Anonymous

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