Penn State’s birthday is traditionally celebrated on Feb. 22 — but in some respects, this date represents just as significant a milestone in university history.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, then-President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-grant Act of 1862 into effect — which, among other things, was aimed at expanding higher education access by setting up a system for states to establish colleges focusing on subjects like agriculture and engineering.
More than a century removed, it’s easy to assume that the Morrill Act is no longer relevant in a time where the university’s academic focus has expanded far beyond the “branches of learning... related to agriculture and mechanic arts” outlined in the law.
But it’s not just important for outlining what was to be taught at the land-grant schools — it’s about who would benefit from the education received there.
At its core, the act was established “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
It would take until 1863 for the state to designate Penn State as Pennsylvania’s sole land-grant university, but the Morrill Act nonetheless paved the way for the university to become an institution that built its legacy on a tradition of educating the working class.
This legacy, more than ever, shouldn’t be overlooked.
In recent years, Penn State’s earned nods in categories that would seem to make it difficult for the “industrial class” of today to turn to the school for an affordable education — having the highest in-state tuition in the nation and being the highest average student debt producer among Big Ten schools, for example.
As Penn State continues to attract a significant number of applicants who are first-generation college students or who come from low- to middle-income families, the university needs to honor its land-grant mission by making it a priority to keep education affordable and accesible to all.