One hundred fifty years ago -- just two months after the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, a historic measure that created the land-grant university system. Twenty-eight years later, Congress enacted a second Morrill Act to establish African American land-grant universities.
Commonly referred to as 1890 Universities, these schools have remained the custodians of access to and opportunity for higher education in underserved communities, as well as leaders in agricultural, environmental and public health studies.
Understanding the special role 1890 Universities play in preparing the next generation of American leaders, on Friday, June 29, we signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between USDA, EPA and the Council of 1890 Universities, an organization comprised of presidents and chancellors of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), to help build upon their rich history.
Originally, 1890 Universities taught agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts, as well as classical studies. Over time, as those studies evolved to incorporate the breadth of college academics, HBCUs have proven to be a vital link between African Americans and higher education. HBCUs represent about 3 percent of colleges in the United States -- but they enroll 12 percent of all African American college students, produce 23 percent of all African American college graduates, and confer 60 percent of all engineering degrees earned by African American students. HBCUs also educate half of the country's African American teachers and 40 percent of all African American health professionals.
The MOU we signed today represents a five-year commitment to increase cooperation between EPA, USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and all 1890 Universities. EPA and USDA will support internships, training, technical assistance, faculty exchange opportunities, increased mentoring and other collaborative environmental and public health activities.
In addition to career-building programs such as the USDA/1890 National Scholars Program, we believe this MOU will help to give students of the 1890 Universities the skills they need to succeed in a modern American economy that's built to last. Affordable access to our public colleges and universities is a key component of our nation's future success. And that is why the Obama Administration believes we must reward hard work and responsibility by keeping interest rates on student loans low. When Americans get a fair shot at an affordable college education, they can obtain skills they need to find a good job and a clear path to the middle class.
This MOU will also assist in giving more Americans a fair shot by expanding the conversation on environmentalism. Too often, America's lowest income communities are also the communities burdened by the most pollution. Illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and asthma are linked to air pollution and other environmental threats -- and all have had a tragic impact on African Americans and other minority communities. Removing the barriers poor environmental conditions can pose to overburdened communities is essential to providing all Americans with the opportunities they deserve. This MOU will help increase public engagement and listening sessions with the underserved and historically underrepresented communities so that we are better equipped to fight for environmental justice.
The benefits of expanding access to higher education are clear. For more than 100 years, federal scientists and university researchers have supported farmers and ranchers who produce a safe and abundant food supply for our families. This work has helped sustain an agricultural trade surplus since the 1960s and led to the record farm income we're enjoying today. This research also helps preserve and protect our environment. Together, we have helped develop no-till farming practices and new crop rotation systems tailored to meet the needs of American farmers and increase their bottom line. At the same time, these practices -- and other new techniques like using wood chips as part of a sub-surface drainage system -- reduce runoff of soil and chemicals that can negatively impact our water supply.
Our work to protect human health and the environment, and to sustain and improve the incredible productivity of our farmers and ranchers relies heavily on America's innovative leaders in scientific development. The strong partnerships between our federal agencies and our nation's land-grant system are an essential part of training those leaders so our country can meet the challenges of today -- and those of tomorrow.
Over the years, land-grant colleges and universities have had a tremendously positive impact on our nation, graduating more than 20 million students. In partnership with the federal government, more than 100 land-grant institutions and other research partners have helped conduct the groundbreaking research that remains the envy of the world. In the years and decades to come, science can -- and must -- do so much more. It can provide the keys to good health and nutrition for our families, lead to clean energy solutions to power our cars, trucks, homes and offices, and promote sustainable food production to feed the world.
USDA and EPA are proud to partner again with our nation's 1890s Universities. Together, by bringing advancements in science and technology, we can make a positive difference in the lives of Americans and people around the world.