During the second half of the nineteenth century, there were two model universities: agricultural colleges and technical colleges. More often than not, states would elect to keep the two colleges separate. This can be seen with a number of state universities today. In the Midwest alone, five states did this. Kansas created a University of Kansas and Kansas State. Iowa has the University of Iowa and Iowa State. Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado all also created separate state colleges. Nebraska would instead elect to create one monolithic school.
The intent of the Morrill Act was to create agricultural colleges. This was the implied intent; it was not explicitly stated in the language of the law. Thus Nebraska’s decision to use federal land to create both an agricultural and technical school was perfectly legal. Nebraska’s decision to create one school likely stemmed from their circumstances. Being a new state that lied far west of the populous east meant resources were limited. Nebraska only had three federal representatives in Congress, meaning the state received the smallest amount of land possible, 90,000 acres. A limited population meant a limited number of potential students. To spread thin such a finite amount of resources would have been foolhardy. Nebraska arguably made the better decision to consolidate all resources into one University.
It is truly impressive that Nebraska was able to capitalize so successfully on the Morrill Act. The early years of statehood were marked by confusion, disorder and corruption. Despite all of this, the State kept a clear focus and direction for the University. The decision to create a single university may have been the most significant. While the federal endowment was gracious it also proved to potentially damming for the lesser-populated states of the West. Because Nebraska was working with considerably fewer acres than other states, the assets had to be monitored more closely. Although the State took several years to begin surveying and selling land, this delay resulted in a more accurate management. Thankfully the Regents of the University of Nebraska, a council created by the State, kept the State motivated.