What does “Land Grant” Really Mean, and Why Should You Care?

Let me go out on a limb here and make a bold statement, which I’m guessing is true for the most part (but I could be wrong):

Most prospective students applying to Cornell University don’t know, or care about, what Cornell’s status as a land-grant university means, or how it applies to them.

But they should, especially if they’re applying to one of the statutory (New York State-funded) undergraduate colleges (Human Ecology, Industrial and Labor Relations, or Agriculture and Life Sciences). Here’s why.

Without going into too much history–I’ll leave that to Corey Earle in his “First American University” class–let me give a brief overview of Cornell’s past. The university was founded at a time when higher education was predominately sought by the entitled classes. Most universities educated only the most privileged, and taught exclusively elite subjects (today’s liberal arts offerings–think classics, literature, etc.). There just was no notion that education should be for all, nor that colleges should work towards the betterment of everyone in society. However, through the Morrill Act in the 1860’s, Cornell’s unique curriculum–which included “agriculture and mechanic arts [now engineering]” –was formulated to improve the lives of citizens by addressing the educational needs of those in New York State (which was, and still is, very agriculturally based). The main takeaway: since its’ founding, Cornell has maintained a rich tradition of partnering with New York State to benefit society.

Okay, you say, that’s great. The University has a conscience. But how will this really affect me, one lowly undergrad out of 13,000 at this fine place? You’d be surprised; it’s very, very fulfilling to know that many of the classes you’re taking (if you’re in CALS/HumEc/ILR) have a slant towards societal betterment.

  1. In a demography class I took, we discussed the theory behind population brain drain, then dove into rich examples of how exactly this is affecting upstate New York industries and towns–and what can be done about it.
  2. In Marketing Plan Development, a semester-long course that consists of creating a marketing plan for a struggling local organization, we spent the semester working directly with the New York State flower-growing industry, to help market and promote their goods. Isn’t that neat? At a top-ranked undergraduate business program, we’re not learning marketing theory to simply pad our wallets later on; it’s to help others. Because of these experiences with direct outreach to increase the economic vitality of the state, many students have developed a “give back” mentality. In fact, I know many professors in the Dyson School focus on subjects like agribusiness management and food marketing outreach in New York to do just that.
  3. In my fun entomology for non-majors class, we learned all about insect predators and the harm they do–then applied that knowledge to learn specifically about those that pose a threat to New York State.
  4. Fun fact: overall, Cornell has the highest acceptance rate in the Ivy League. Another fun fact: you won’t find many people here losing sleep over that. For an institution that exists to serve the people of the State, Cornell is proud to accept as many people as it can (as exemplified by the guaranteed transfer admission option given to some high school seniors, and transfer agreements from many NYS community colleges). It means that fit plays a role too–the ILR student with subpar SAT’s who’s shown devotion to advancing labor conditions, and the Viticulture & Enology applicant who has worked sweat and tears on his/her family’s vineyard to boost the state’s economy, both stand a better chance at getting in over a sterile 800-800-800 candidate with no passion or experience…or so I’m told.

To wrap up, let me make a plea to rising high school seniors: Look, I get it. Cornell’s an Ivy. It has top ranked programs, varied extracurricular activities, and 41 Nobel Laureates affiliated with the school. But if you apply for just those reasons, you’re missing out on one fundamentally unique aspect of the University–it’s storied past of creating “knowledge with a public purpose.” I implore you to consider this land-grant, “give-back” notion that’s present in much of the Cornell curriculum, if you’re trying to decide between universities. Oh, and don’t ever, ever discount Cornell by calling it a “public school” –though it’s technically still a private institution, having the public status (that reflects the university’s stewardship to the state) would probably be a badge of honor.

One thought on “What does “Land Grant” Really Mean, and Why Should You Care?

  1. Sarah

    I’m from Virginia, but this is exactly why I applied to Cornell. You captured the land grant spirit perfectly!

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