Universities, State

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UNIVERSITIES, STATE. State universities have long been an important element in the complex structure of American higher education, but in the early Republic, only the private, church-related colleges established deep roots. Those private colleges educated an elite in a narrow, classical liberal arts curriculum and confirmed the dominant Protestant religious groups. The westward movement planted denominational liberal arts colleges of this type across the land, and they remained a feature of American higher education into the twentieth century.

With the birth of the nation in the late eighteenth century came the conviction that the public had a responsibility to support higher education, giving rise to the earliest state universities. State institutions first appeared in the Southeast, where private colleges had not gained a foothold during the colonial period. Georgia pioneered in chartering a state university in 1785, North Carolina followed in 1789, and South Carolina in 1801. Thomas Jefferson's vision of a public university culminated in the 1819 charter of the University of Virginia. Often, the initiation of instruction occurred several years after the charter.

As the nation expanded, settlers carried the idea of state universities to new frontiers. Vermont provided for a state university in 1791, and Tennessee did so in 1794. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 encouraged schools and the means of education, and Ohio University (1804) in Athens, Ohio, and Miami University (1809) in Oxford, Ohio, were the first state universities established in the Northwest Territory. By 1861, twenty of the existing thirty-four states had founded publicly supported universities, including new institutions in Indiana (1816), Michigan (1817), Missouri (1821), Iowa (1846), and Wisconsin (1848). In seven of the other fourteen states, private colleges had been established at an early date; for example, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, King's College (now Columbia), and Brown. The remaining seven new states, Illinois, Maine, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Oregon, and Kansas, failed to act on a university between the time of their admission to the Union and the outbreak of the Civil War.

A massive reconstruction of higher education created the modern American university. The leaders of an educational reform movement that began in the 1820s and gathered momentum in the 1840s criticized the entrenched liberal arts colleges as lacking relevance for a democratic and expanding nation. They demanded that the federal government help create an educational system open to all social and economic classes and to women as well as men, and they demanded a curriculum designed to prepare students for the world of work and practical pursuits.

The reform movement culminated in the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862), which entitled each state to select 30,000 acres of public land for each legislator it sent to Washington, D.C. in 1860. The states were to invest the proceeds from the disposition of this bounty at 5 percent and use the returns to endow within two years at least one college where

the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.

The enormous federal endowment stimulated the rise of state universities and initiated a new era in American higher education.

The Morrill Act threw the burden of responsibility on the states. By 1863, fourteen states had acted, and by 1870, the two-year deadline having been extended, a total of thirty-six states had accepted the legislation. The federal subsidy was too large to refuse but too small by itself to support a college. Some states were slow to meet the challenge. To further the cause of public colleges and universities, the Hatch Act (1887) provided $15,000 a year to establish an agricultural experiment station affiliated with a land-grant college or university in each state. The second Morrill Act (1890) provided a permanent annual endowment starting at $15,000 and rising to $25,000 for each land-grant college established under the provisions of the 1862 act, and it allowed states to use a portion of the federal appropriation to endow and maintain land-grant colleges for black youths in states that maintained separate educational facilities. Many of the resulting institutions became agricultural and mechanical colleges.

Starting around the middle of the twentieth century, most state-supported teacher's colleges in the United States were transformed into state universities. In 1994, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classified 3,595 American colleges and universities according to the highest level of degrees conferred. At that time, 765 institutions granted degrees beyond a baccalaureate, including 529 in which the highest degree awarded was a master's and 236 that granted doctorates. Well over half of the latter (151, or 64 percent) were public institutions. Of this group, sixty-six were classified as doctoral universities and eighty-five as research universities. The doctoral universities offered baccalaureate programs and graduate studies through doctorates, and they were subdivided into two categories according to the number of doctoral degrees awarded annually. The research universities offered baccalaureate programs and graduate studies through doctorates and gave high priority to research. They were subdivided into Categories I and II. The former received annually $40 million or more in federal support; the latter received between $15.5 and $40 million annually in federal support. Of the public research universities, fifty-nine were classified in Category I and twenty-six were classified in Category II.

American state universities educate a large proportion of the young people engaged in postsecondary studies. In 1994, public universities that granted doctorates enrolled 12.072 million students, 79.1 percent of the total number of students pursuing such studies, compared to 3.191 million students in private institutions of the same type. Public colleges and universities offering a master's as the highest degree enrolled 2.292 million or 73 percent of the total number of students involved in such studies, compared to 848,000 in private institutions of the same type.

Most of the state universities classified as Category I research universities are clustered in three geographical areas in the United States: along the Atlantic seaboard in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; in the middle of the land, in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas; and along the Pacific Coast in Washington, Oregon, and California.

Rapid changes following World War II erased many of the qualitative distinctions that formerly had distinguished the best private universities from the best state universities. Some critics suggested that the leading private universities, with their historical commitment to the liberal arts, emphasize quality in the humanities more so than the best state universities. But the United States in 2002 supported a number of world-class state universities whose educational and research programs are essential to the advancement of knowledge and to human welfare. The state universities have contributed significantly to the shaping of American democracy and to elevating the intellectual and cultural life of the nation.


Brody, Alexander. The American State and Higher Education: The Legal, Political, and Constitutional Relationships. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1935.

Heller, Donald E., ed. The States and Public Higher Education Policy: Affordability, Access, and Accountability. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2001.

Nevins, Allan. The State Universities and Democracy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962.

Ross, Earle D. Democracy's College: The Land-Grant Movement in the Formative Stage. Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1942.

Serving the World: The People and Ideas of America's State and Land-Grant Universities. Washington, D.C.: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 1987.

Solberg, Winton U. The University of Illinois, 1867–1894: An Intellectual and Cultural History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968.

———. The University of Illinois, 1894–1904: The Shaping of the University. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Thackrey, Russell I. The Future of the State University. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Winton U.Solberg

See alsoEducation ; Education, Higher ; Land Grants: Land Grants for Education .

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Universities, State