Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives
Graduates proceed across the Utah State campus to the Dee Smith Spectrum during USU\'s 110th commencement ceremony Saturday May 3, 2003 in Logan, Utah.
We're approaching the point where we'll have as many Utah State University students outside Logan as we have in Logan. —USU President Stan Albrecht

LOGAN — Utah State University will celebrate Founder's Day Friday with a special emphasis paid to the sesquicentennial anniversary of legislation that revolutionized higher education in America and made USU possible.

The Morrill Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, was designed to expand educational opportunities to people who typically would not have received a college education.

People like Christie Tolbert, a mother of 7 and former mayor of Hinckley, Millard County.

Tolbert, 39, always hoped to earn a college degree. She was unable to, however, because her family moved for her husband's job, making it impossible to establish residency. When they finally settled down long enough to do that in Hinckley, she started taking classes from USU in nearby Delta.

"To me, it's very, very important," Tolbert said Tuesday. "I've always wanted to, but I was never able to go to college."

She said she juggled her roles as mayor, mother and volleyball team chauffeur with her school work by waking up early and going to bed late. When she graduates this spring, she'll be the first college graduate in her family.

The education Tolbert and others are receiving from USU regional campuses and distance education across the state are all a part of the legacy of the Morrill Act, sponsored by Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont. The act created land grant schools in every state to expand educational opportunities. 

"At that time, higher education in this country was, in significant part, private higher education, and so it was expensive," said USU President Stan Albrecht. "It served the children of the upper classes."

Today, more than 60 universities trace their roots to the land grants from the Morrill Act.

"(The act) set aside property in each of the states for the building of a college or a university that would extend access opportunity for education to those who at that point in our history hadn't been given that opportunity," Albrecht said.

The Utah legislature selected Logan as the home of its land grant school, and Utah State Agricultural College was founded in 1888.

"It wouldn't have happened without the Morrill Act," Albrecht said.

In 124 years, the agricultural college has grown into a university with more than 19,000 students and a presence in every county in the state. Albrecht said as the university grows, it takes its mandate to extend educational opportunities statewide seriously.

"The initial land grant vision is sacred to us," he said. "It's why we were created."

USU's growth outside of Logan is proof of this, Albrecht said.

"A lot of the growth of our student body has occurred at our regional campuses rather than the main campus," he said. "We're approaching the point where we'll have as many Utah State University students outside Logan as we have in Logan."

In addition to the Logan campus, USU has campuses in Blanding, Price, Roosevelt, Tooele and Vernal and offers classes in numerous other parts of the state.

Richard Gonzalez, 34, said if it wasn't for USU's campus in Tooele, he wouldn't have been able to get the education he has received.

"I don't know if I would have been able to finish school," Gonzalez said. "I wouldn't have been able to afford it."

Gonzalez was working in management at an Albertson's warehouse for 14 years when he was laid off. The next day, he enrolled at USU-Tooele.

"I love it, that it's like four miles away from here," he said.

Albrecht said USU will continue to expand opportunities for education, and with the aid of technology, it will be easier than ever.

"It used to be we would put people on little single engine airplanes and fly them to the Uintah Basin or fly them to Blanding or somewhere else," he said. "Now we're able to do that electronically through video conferencing and those kinds of things."

Albrecht said he is optimistic for the future of the university and appreciates the role USU plays in public education in Utah.

"I love being at a land grant university because our mission is unique," he said. "We feel that Utah State University's footprint is a statewide footprint."

To celebrate the the Morrill Act's sesquicentennial, Mary Sias, president of Kentucky State University, a land grant university, will speak about getting an education in segregated Mississippi thanks in part to the land grant system. A traveling exhibit will also be created and will visit every county.