Morrill Land-Grant Acts: Impact on the Growth of Colleges & Universities

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  • 0:02 Agricultural Education
  • 1:20 Morrill Act of 1862
  • 3:46 Morrill Act of 1890
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Ever wonder how colleges and universities were started? In this lesson, we'll look at the Morrill Land-Grant Acts and how they contributed to the establishment of many American colleges, including state universities and historically black colleges.

Agricultural Education

Imagine your favorite meal. Picture it laid out before you. What do you see? Bread? Meat? Pasta? Cheese? Fruit and veggies? Now imagine that none of those things were available to eat. Imagine that there was such a shortage of food that the majority of people could not eat.

In the mid-19th century in America, the growing population in cities in the United States made people nervous about the future of agriculture, or the use of land to produce food through farming or ranching. In the late 1800s, people in America began to get nervous. Lots of people lived and worked in cities, in office buildings and factories, and there were more and more people who needed food and fewer and fewer farmers and ranchers to provide it. The people providing food needed new and innovative ways of working the land.

Politicians wondered, 'how could we ensure that the farmers, ranchers, and plantation owners in America were at the cutting edge of agricultural science?' The Morrill Land-Grant Acts provided land and money for states to build colleges focused on agriculture, engineering, and military tactics. Let's look closer at the acts and their impact on American education.

Morrill Act of 1862

Let's hop in our time machine and travel back to the early 1800s. Not very many people went to college, and those that did were in specific fields, like lawyers, doctors, and religious leaders. Farmers and soldiers didn't really go to college; they just learned on the job. But as we saw, some changes in the American landscape started to make people think that it would be a good idea to provide college degrees for farmers, who could learn the best ways to grow food, and for soldiers, who were busy fighting the Civil War.

The Morrill Act of 1862 gave each state a large plot of land to establish a public college to provide degrees in the study of agriculture, engineering, and military tactics. The colleges could offer other subjects, too, but at the least, they had to offer those three things. Colleges established as part of the Morrill Act were called land-grant colleges.

Each state received 30,000 acres for each member of Congress that represented them. Because the number of congressmen in the House of Representatives was determined by the population of the state, more populated (and mainly Eastern) states got the most land to use. The land could be used as a homestead to build the college on it, or it could be sold to fund the establishment of the college, or a combination of both.

When the Morrill Act was passed in 1862, the Civil War was raging. As a result, the act stated that states that were in a state of rebellion or insurrection against the government would not be allowed to receive land. This meant that Southern, Confederate states were excluded from the act. However, after the war, the act was amended to include the former Confederate states. You might be wondering what the big deal was with the Morrill Act of 1862. So the government provided lands for colleges to be built - so what?

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