What is a Land Grant University?

If you are looking into attending a college or university in the United States, you may have come across the name “land grant university” and wondered what it meant. Specifically, a university with this designation has a history as a land-grant school, which means it was created under legislation that gave it that status, either in the nineteenth or twentieth century. Land grant colleges or universities were originally designated as such because their focus was on agricultural studies, though most of them today offer other studies as well. There are currently 106 higher education institutions in the U.S. that fall under the name of land grant.

The Historic Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994

It was when the Morrill Act was passed in 1862 that the first land-grant colleges came into existence. Many people in the 1860s thought it was important to establish schools of higher learning that would focus on agriculture and engineering. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in July of 1862. This was around the same time he was signing legislation that created the Homestead Act and the financing of the transcontinental railroad. Under the Morrill Act, each state got 30,000 acres of land per their number of elected federal representatives. This land was federal land within the state’s boundaries, and it needed to be set apart for colleges that would focus on agriculture, engineering, and military training.

In 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed. This one was a little different because it gave states money instead of land, but it’s purpose was similar. It also indicated that states whose land-grant schools did not admit people of color had to establish separate, similar universities for them. Some of the country’s historic black colleges got their start from this act. Finally, in 1994, Congress granted land-grant status to Native American universities and colleges that are located in areas where people do not usually have access to higher education. These colleges include curriculum that teaches Native American culture.


Today, almost all of the 106 land grant schools are part of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU). On their website, you can find an interesting timeline that details the land-grant institutional acts as well as history pertaining to their own association. Originally founded in 1887 under another name, the APLU has the distinction of being the oldest U.S. association of higher education. Every state in the U.S. has at least one historic land-grant school. Some have more than one because of the addition of black schools in the 1890s and Native American schools in the 1990s. You can look at a map of all the land-grant institutions at the USDA website. While most of the schools are public, a few are private.

While there are other schools of agriculture and other public universities not created under these historic acts, their creation was historically significant since it opened up higher education to people who might not have otherwise had access to it. If you decide to go to an historic land grant university, you can be proud of the school’s heritage and their part in that process.