What Is a Land-Grant University?

These universities were first established in the 1800s to provide practical higher education to agricultural and industrial workers. Now, these institutions provide a wide variety of majors.
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Published on August 10, 2023
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  • Land-grant universities (LGUs) conduct research and provide resources for their states.
  • Historically Black and tribal college LGUs are funded significantly less than predominantly white LGUs, a study shows.
  • Many LGUs still grant many degrees in agriculture and related fields while also offering a more traditional liberal arts education.

There's a chance your university may be a land-grant institution without you knowing it.

There's at least one land-grant institution in every state, including Washington, D.C., and they can be predominantly white institutions (PWIs), historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), or tribal colleges and universities (TCUs).

But what does it mean for a college to be a land-grant university?

What Are Land-Grant Institutions?

The land-grant universities' original purpose was to specialize in agriculture, military tactics, and mechanical arts on top of a traditional liberal arts education. They targeted agricultural and industrial workers with limited access to higher education who could receive a practical education.

According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, an LGU is a college or university that a state or federal legislature designates to receive funds under the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994.

U.S. Sen. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont sponsored the first Morrill Act to establish the original class of LGUs. States used the second Morrill Act to establish colleges and universities for Black students, HBCUs.

According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act established Native American tribal colleges and universities, also known as “1994 land grants.”

Every state has at least one 1862 LGU, including Washington, D.C. Some states have LGUs of each designation, 1862, HBCUs, and TCUs.

The Hatch Act of 1887 gave states federal funding for agricultural experiment stations to connect with that state's land-grant institution. The amount of funding varies annually, depending on the number of small farmers within the state. The state must match a significant portion of the budget.

What Are 1890 Land-Grant Institutions?

There are 19 HBCUs under the second Morrill Act of 1890.

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 established agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. According to the 1890 Foundation, the federal government required these institutions to integrate for federal funding in 1889.

The Foundation said most states created new agricultural and mechanical arts colleges for Black citizens rather than incorporating them into existing programs.

In addition to appropriating funding, a state could escape this provision, however, if separate institutions were maintained and the funds divided in a just, but not necessarily equal, manner, the Foundation says. Thus the 1890 act led to the establishment of land-grant institutions for African Americans.

Land-Grant HBCUs Get Funded Less Than Predominantly White Ones

According to a 2023 study by the Center for American Progress (CAP), some states with 1890 LGU still declined to fund them fully.

CAP found that between one-third and one-half of states with land-grant HBCUs declined full funding to these programs despite a requirement that states match a majority of federal funds to LGUs.

According to CAP, land-grant HBCUs lost more than $90 million in funding over the past five years due to the lack of funding matching. Meanwhile, predominantly white 1862 LGUs receive about eight times more funding than their HBCU counterparts, according to the study.

1890 Land-Grant Institution USDA Programs

The USDA has several programs to aid the historically underfunded 1890 HBCUs.

  • 1890 Institution Teaching, Research, and Extension Capacity Building Grants (CBG) Program: The projects, part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's (NIFA) Capacity Building Grants Program, support research, teaching, and extension to advance fundamental sciences, translational research, and agricultural development. The estimated total program funding is $28 million, and awards range from $150,000-$750,000.
  • 1890 Extension Formula: These grants assist diverse audiences with limited social and economic resources through outreach education. The funds can support small to medium family farms by enhancing marketing skills, adopting new technologies, and using estate planning and tax incentives to retain and increase business. The grant program's budget was $62.4 million in 2022.
  • 1890 Facilities Grant: Provides and improves agricultural and food sciences facilities and equipment. The estimated total program funding is a little over $20 million, with individual awards ranging from $750,000-$1.65 million.

The USDA also provides scholarships at 1890 institutions for outstanding students to complete bachelor's degrees in food and agricultural sciences.

The Centers of Excellence program established centers to increase rural prosperity in underserved farming communities, enhance international training and development, and increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and mathematics pipeline.

What Are Tribal Land-Grant Institutions?

There are 36 land-grant tribal colleges aided by federal programs that work to ensure the institutions and Native American communities have equitable access to the USDA's employment opportunities, programs, services, and resources.

According to the USDA, the schools specialize in research, education, and extension programs that enhance local agriculture and food production.

The Navajo Nation established Diné College in Arizona in 1968 as the first tribal-run college before the “tribal colleges and universities” designation existed.

Five years later, tribal leaders founded the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. The consortium works to ensure the USDA understands issues affecting tribal colleges.

The USDA also provides the Terra Preta do Indio Tribal Fellowship for 1994 tribal college faculty and staff working in agriculture, conservation, natural resource, science, or community development to advance their school.

However, tribal colleges also have less funding than predominantly white 1862 LGUs. CAP found 1862 LGUs have about 4.5 times more endowment assets per student than tribal college LGUs.

What Do Land-Grant Institutions Do Now?

LGUs represent a wide variety of schools with different specialties. Though initially created to advance agricultural and mechanical arts, some schools have expanded from those original values and embraced more diverse specialties in traditional liberal arts education.

Cornell University, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York, is a land-grant university that gave the most degrees to agricultural/animal/plant/veterinary science and other related fields and sciences as of the 2020-2021 school year.

Farther south, Clemson University in South Carolina shares the same top degrees awarded.

In July, the USDA granted the 1890 LGUs $33 million to support 82 research, extension, and education projects, including machine learning and artificial intelligence in agriculture, food safety, stress and sleep in diverse Delaware communities, and pepper breeding.