The Land Grant Colleges' Early Years
In 1862 when the first Morrill Act became law, public institutions of higher education were still relatively few and concentrated east of the Mississippi River. Just beginning, however, was another great westward migration that would create settler communities and farms from Kansas City to San Francisco. Federal support for public colleges of agriculture, originally in the form of land grants and later in the form of cash grants, helped assure the westward movement of higher education as well.
In 1862 higher education was largely a privilege of the wealthy. College programs emphasized philosophy, theology, law, medicine, and the classics. Meanwhile, one-half of the country's population lived on farms and more than one-half the labor force worked on them (National Research Council, 1995a). Fortunately, there were those who understood that the nation's economic development would be enhanced by educating farmers and bringing scientific principles to the business of farming. There were also those who saw widespread public access to higher education as essential to a strong democracy. Some scientific schools, industrial schools, and technical agriculture schools had begun to appear by 1862, particularly where agricultural societies were active in pushing for their establishment (Cochrane, 1978). Prior to the Morrill Act, agricultural colleges were established in Michigan, Connecticut (the Yale Scientific School), and Pennsylvania, for example. But a federal role in supporting the development of land grant colleges across the country, on both new and existing campuses, made a major difference in assuring that higher education would be broadly available and would address the practical needs of the nation's food and fiber production system and industrial base.
Establishment of the land grant colleges was not without controversy. Prior to passage of the 1862 Morrill Act, legislators actively debated the federal government's role in public and especially higher education. After the colleges were established, there was the question of their proper teaching mission. There were those who advocated combining the traditional course work with the new—that is, scholarly course work with practical course work (Cochrane, 1979). Within the education community, those who most vigorously fought for federal support of industrial education wanted the colleges to focus on elevating agriculture and mechanical arts to the prestige of the learned professions. Leaders of institutions of higher education, on the other hand, who were mostly classical scholars and preachers, had no interest in such educational goals. Legislators also debated the need for federal funding to achieve the academic program goals.
With continued debate about funding came the realization that a significant segment of U.S. workers, particularly African-Americans, remained underrepresented in the recently created colleges. In 1890 Congress enacted the second Morrill Act, which provided federal funding for 1862 institutions on the condition that access be offered to or, alternatively, that separate institutions be created for African-Americans. Seventeen southern and border states took the latter option and in 1890 authorized the creation of colleges designated for African-Americans. According to Cochrane (1979:p. 243), it took time for colleges of agriculture to fully develop; however,
[b]y 1900 some of the better agricultural colleges had become effective instruments of agricultural education; they had a specialized faculty, a respectable number of students, and some course content in the agricultural disciplines to teach those students. For these colleges the rough, rocky period was past.