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Minority-serving Institutions Battle for Budget Consideration

Colleges disagree over what constitutes an agricultural program and therefore who qualifies for limited federal agricultural resources.

For minority-serving institutions coping with the greatest recession in decades, there may be major gains for those who earn the title of “Hispanic-serving agricultural college or university.”

Already called “HSACU” among government relations experts, the designation may pay off big for some Hispanic-serving institutions. The 2008 Farm Bill created six new small programs for such colleges and universities, and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities is asking Congress for $260 million in total start-up funding for next year.

With university endowments down and states cutting back on public-college funding, such new pots of money, however small, are attracting interest among college leaders. In addition to this battle, minority-serving institutions are asking Congress to fund a new — but as yet unfunded — program to address the digital divide at Black colleges, HSIs and tribal colleges.

Minority-serving institutions also are looking to the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and other agencies for new federal dollars.

“Our schools are facing increasingly large challenges with the global economic conditions right now,” says Edith Bartley, government affairs director at the United Negro College Fund.

While long-standing pots of money under the Higher Education Act remain essential to MSIs, here is a look at some of the emerging funding battles elsewhere:

Farm Bill: For HSIs, implementing the Farm Bill is a two-front battle. The first is asking Congress to fund the new programs. The other is how to define “Hispanic-serving agricultural college or university.”

HACU is seeking start-up funding of $20 million to $80 million for each of six programs targeting agriculturally minded HSIs:

•An endowment fund;
•An equity grants program;
•A capacity-building grants program;
•An applied research grants program;
•An extension grants program; and
•A forestry/natural resources leadership program.

“There is no funding requested in the president’s budget. We’re working to see if Congress can plug in some funding,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, HACU president.

The equity program is important for faculty training and infrastructure, while the applied research program could fund studies on a spectrum of issues including human nutrition, food science, bioenergy and environmental science.

Under the Farm Bill, such programs are open to HSIs with associate, bachelor’s or other accredited degree programs in “agriculture and related fields,” according to the legislation. But defining the term “related fields” is a challenge, as some colleges argue for a strict interpretation of the term.

“Many colleges and universities, who are looking for any type of funding available, will be jumping at the chance to institute agriculture concentrations, options or otherwise less than true agriculture programs within existing non-ag degree programs just to get in line for additional funding,” says Dr. Mark Bender, the Rolland Starn Endowed Chair in Agricultural Studies at California State University- Stanislaus.

In public comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the topic, Bender says a broad definition of “agriculture and related fields” could easily dilute the program’s impact on colleges with traditionally strong programs.

But New Jersey City University, an HSI in Jersey City, N.J., argues that the definition should include not only traditional agriculture degrees but also those in biology and geosciences. The university’s problem-based approach to biology curricula infuses plant sciences, ecology and genetics into its program, says Dr. Carlos Hernández, university president. Its geosciences program has “made great strides in attracting students to the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines and in preparing them for the modern food/agriculture science workplace,” he wrote USDA.

The agency has yet to make a final decision on how to define “agriculture and related fields,” a department official told Diverse. Digital divide: MSIs have a united front on this issue, calling for start-up funding for this program to be based at the U.S. Department of Commerce. President Barack Obama has not included funding in his budget, and early indications are that it is not included in a House of Representatives’ 2010 spending bill, lobbyists say.

Nonetheless, minority-serving colleges are asking for $500 million a year. Flores says many MSIs are “behind the curve on technology,” with a particular need for high-speed wireless networks connecting all campus buildings. “Congress has to step up to the plate and get this going,” he says.

Other agencies: HACU is seeking $100 million in 2010 from the Department of Energy for a new program to have HSIs carry out research in biofuels and renewable energy. And the Congressional Black Caucus, in its recent alternative budget, sought more money from the Department of Agriculture for land-grant Black colleges and Black farmers.

Such advocacy efforts will culminate in summer and fall when lawmakers write fiscal year 2010 budget bills for individual agencies. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

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