First in the Midwest: Historic 'firsts' in the development of the nation's unique land-grant universities

Think of the American Midwest, and you may think first of natural resources. A land of Great Lakes and Great Plains, the region is world-renowned for its sparkling waters and its fertile soil. But the region’s strength depends on much more than natural abundance.
Part industrial heartland, part agricultural breadbasket, the Midwest is also home to an extensive network of world-class academic institutions, many of which trace their roots to a 19th-century movement to make higher education more practical and more readily available to rural and working-class citizens.
In time, that movement would change the face of higher education in America, with several Midwestern states playing key roles as pioneers in the establishment of new colleges that offered courses in agriculture and the mechanic arts, as well as other scientific and classical studies.
The cornerstone for this effort was laid during the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress approved the Morrill Act, which donated public lands to the states for their use in establishing what came to be known as “land grant colleges.” Proceeds from the sale or development of the granted lands were to be used to endow the new schools, which promised to democratize higher education by making practical learning more readily available to citizens across the country.

Some of the earliest land-grant colleges were established in the Midwest. In fact, at least three Midwestern states claimed historic “firsts” as the land-grant era began.

On September 11, 1862, soon after President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, Iowa became the first state to formally accept the bill’s provisions. But before designating the State Agricultural College in Ames (later Iowa State University) as Iowa’s land-grant college in 1864, another Midwestern state, Kansas, established what some consider to be the first land-grant institution created under the Morrill Act. That happened in February 1863, when the state Legislature transferred the assets of financially strapped Bluemont College to the state. This new land-grant school later became Kansas State University. 

But the region’s strongest claim to land-grant primacy arguably belongs to Michigan, where the nation’s first agricultural college was chartered under state law in 1855, seven years before the Morrill Act was passed.

Like the schools that were later established under the federal act, the Agricultural College of Michigan, which later became Michigan State University, was initially funded through a land grant from the state. The Michigan model served as a prototype for the land-grant idea that was later built into the Morrill Act.

More economic growth, opportunity
For decades, many of the new land-grant schools struggled. Meager profits from the sales of granted lands meant that endowments were often insufficient to sustain growth, and few of the new colleges had access to the resources they needed.
All of that began to change with federal passage of the Hatch Act in 1887. It provided states with funds for the establishment of agricultural experiment stations under the direction of their land-grant colleges. Then, in 1890, Congress approved the Second Morrill Act, which provided additional support to land-grant institutions in the form of cash instead of land.
Another milestone came in 1914 with passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which effectively extended the land-grant outreach mission by establishing the cooperative extension service to help disseminate research and technology to end users in rural areas. 

Each of these measures helped to transform the initial patchwork of small agricultural colleges into a dynamic network of innovative research institutions.

“Land-grant institutions provided opportunities for millions of middle-class Americans to achieve a postsecondary education, which was vital to the nation’s economic growth,” notes Larry Isaak, president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, adding that it was a nationwide effort in higher education “on a scale never before attempted anywhere.”

Today, more than 100 colleges and universities across the country, including 30 in the Midwest, enjoy land-grant status.Together, they conduct cutting-edge research into fields ranging from physics and agricultural science to medicine, engineering and more. Approximately 85 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 70 percent of all graduate degrees earned in the United States come from land-grant institutions. And their history of open admissions policies has made it possible for unprecedented numbers of women, rural students and working-class citizens to obtain affordable educations.



First in the Midwest highlights noteworthy “firsts” in state government that occurred in the region. Please contact Mike McCabe, CSG Midwest director, if you have ideas for future articles.
Stateline Midwest ~ December 20141.55 MB