Farm Bill Proposals Boost Research Facilities and HBCUs

By Katherine Knott

Public land-grant universities across the country could get some much-needed help from Congress to improve their aging research facilities, which are facing $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance costs.

The latest proposals to reauthorize the sprawling farm bill, which includes funding for research at public land-grants, would put anywhere from $100 million to $2.5 billion toward a competitive grant program to pay for infrastructure projects that was created—but not funded—in 2018.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) had asked for $5 billion over the next five years. But the $2.5 billion included in the House agriculture committee’s proposal would be a “huge win,” said Doug Steele, the APLU’s vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources.

“If the United States is going to maintain our status as the world leader in ag research and development, we have to have facilities to conduct modern research and think about the topics of today that are major concerns such as climate, carbon, and healthier, more nutritious food,” he said.

House Republicans aren’t alone in their intention of helping colleges with outdated facilities. Senate Democrats have proposed a smaller amount for the infrastructure projects, however—$100 million—while Senate Republicans would allocate at least $1 billion.

The infrastructure funding is one of several provisions in the wide-ranging farm bill—which sets policy for agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry—that affect colleges and universities and their students. Congress is also looking to address historic inequities in funding for some historically Black colleges and universities in the farm bill.

Making that happen will depend on bridging sharp divides over food-assistance benefits and other policies. Programs in the farm bill expire Sept. 30 unless Congress reaches an agreement or passes an extension, which would likely stretch until after the November election.

So far, only the House Agriculture Committee has released a farm bill, passing it out of a committee on a largely party-line vote last month. Senate Republicans and Democrats have shared separate frameworks outlining their respective proposals. The farm bill was last updated in 2018 and is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, though members of Congress gave themselves an extra year to finish this latest update.

Reaching a bipartisan agreement on the estimated $1.5 trillion bill is expected to be difficult because of disagreements over changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which takes up about 84 percent of the funds in the legislation. House Republicans have proposed restricting future updates to the formula that determines SNAP benefit levels; that change could lead to a $30 billion cut to the program over the next decade. Senate Democrats are determined to block any cuts to SNAP.

“Let’s be clear: Republicans are giving America a false choice,” said Representative James P. McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee. “They’re trying to pit people against one another by taking money away from families in poverty to buy off support for their extreme and extremely partisan farm bill. Money for nutrition programs has never moved out of the nutrition title for as long as I have been working on this issue. This Republican ploy to gut SNAP to pay for other Farm Bill priorities is cynical, misguided, and rotten.”

The farm bill talks are “heading in the wrong direction,” said Carrie Welton, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Institute for College Access and Success.

Welton and other advocates had higher hopes for this farm bill. They wanted Congress to modernize SNAP and make food assistance easier for students to access. But now, given the political impasse, Welton said “it’s not realistic” at this point to expand eligibility for SNAP and increase the cost of the program while facing threats of cuts. If a new farm bill doesn’t pass, funding and eligibility for SNAP will remain flat.

“Protecting SNAP from cuts is the No. 1 priority, and that also affects millions of students who currently do receive SNAP,” she said. “Sometimes defense is a win given the current political climate.”

More Funding and Fairness for HBCUs

The nation’s 19 historically Black land-grant colleges and universities still have great expectations for the farm bill, which offers a chance to address their historically inequitable funding while securing more support for research and development on their campuses.

The 2018 update created six new centers of excellence at the Black land-grants and provided $80 million in scholarship funds for HBCU students, and advocates were hoping to build on those victories. Initial proposals indicate that they’ll do so.

The House bill would create two more centers of excellence, while Senate Democrats want to create four more and boost the centers’ funding to $50 million a year for the next five years. Lawmakers in both chambers want to boost funding for the scholarship program from $10 million to $100 million.

The House and Senate proposals would also increase funding for research and extension services at the Black land-grants. Funding levels are currently set at 30 percent of what the traditionally white land-grants receive for research and 20 percent of the extension funds. The proposals would raise the thresholds to 40 percent.

Lawmakers are also taking aim at the historic underfunding of Black land-grants compared to their predominantly white peers. For instance, states are required to provide matching funds in order for public land-grants to receive federal research and extension grants. If states don’t match the federal dollars, universities can lose the money unless they seek a waiver from the federal government that allows them to receive it.

Over the years, several states have opted out of the matching requirement; as a result, Black land-grants have been shortchanged by about $200 million while fully matching the grant dollars for predominately white land-grants. The proposed legislation would require states to publicly say whether or not they’ll match all federal grants.

David Sheppard, the chief business and legal officer at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports HBCUs, said the proposal is “huge and necessary.” The current law, he said, is problematic and forces universities to do the work to keep the federal funding, even though they aren’t responsible for the decision to not provide matching funds—their states are.

“The fact that in this proposed legislation, the responsibility gets shifted to the states to have to effectuate the waiver and explain why is a massive improvement over the way that they currently operate,” he said.

The disparities in funding between the historically Black-land grants and the predominately white land-grants gained new attention last September when the Education and Agriculture secretaries publicly called out some governors for failing to adequately fund their Black land-grants and detailed how much they owed.

Under the federal law that created the Black land-grants in 1890, states were required to equitably distribute funds between historically Black and traditionally white land-grant institutions, but a federal analysis showed that states haven’t complied with that requirement.

For example, Tennessee owes Tennessee State University $2.1 billion, though state officials have taken issue with that figure. Overall, sixteen of the Black land-grants have been shorted a total of $13 billion from 1987 to 2020, according to the federal analysis.

Sheppard said that the House and Senate proposals signal a recognition that an inequity exists.

The letters “finally brought this issue to light in a way which has never happened in the past,” he said. “I think it is the right course, and finally starts getting us going down the road in the right direction of acknowledging the issue and finally addressing it.”

Although the Congressional proposals won’t make up for the money lost over the years, Sheppard said getting states to honor the requirements in federal law is a step in the right direction.

“Hopefully, at least prospectively, we won’t have to talk about this aspect of the issue anymore,” he said.