With federal and state funding decreasing to institutions of higher learning, policy leaders and educators from universities and colleges across the country met at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in mid-September to hold a forum on higher education, and four panelists were invited to share their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing our nation’s universities and colleges, especially when it comes to return on investment in the areas of food and agriculture.

“We assume these institutions will be there. We assume that they will always be there,” said Constance Cullman, president of the Farm Foundation and moderator of the Sept. 19 forum, which was also broadcast live for others to listen. “It’s not always easy to have a funding conversation. But either we need to change our funding or we need to seriously rethink how we value these (institutions).”

State, federal funding a challenge

“This is a highly important topic,” said Ronnie Green, chancellor of the University of Nebraska.

He drew attention to the history of higher education, a history that has traditionally been built around the idea of “universal.” However, that has changed over the last century and a half as funding has decreased and there has been a shift to talent funding, or funding the student instead of the institution.

With the population of the world expected to grow by 3 billion people by 2050, Green sees opportunity in investing in higher learning institutions studying food and agriculture as “the needs we have ahead are greater than they’ve been over time.”

He used his state of Nebraska as an example; Nebraska is the fourth largest state in the U.S. for agriculture receipts and the largest red meat producing state in the country. However, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln receives $2.5 billion annually in funding, compared to the annual funding of the U.S Department of Agriculture at $2.9 billion and other federal agencies receiving $4.5 billion in funding.

At his university, funding has decreased by one-fifth, a 20 percent decrease. And the University of Nebraska isn’t alone — the decrease in funding, particularly state funding, continues due to fights states have with other needs, such as health and human services and corrections.

“This is the scope of the challenge we have,” he said.

Another shift he mentioned is the shift from a public model of research at universities to a modified public/private/philanthropy model as funding sources continue to decrease. More and more funding is also being targeted to the student with the institutions relying more on tuition, which has also seen an increase.

In 2008, China surpassed the U.S. for the amount of funding dedicated for agriculture and food research. This is also concerning to Green as he sees feeding the world’s population will become an increasing dilemma as time progresses.

Opportunities in ag science and technology

Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar’s agriculture experiences began on his family’s 604-acre Indiana farm, which includes acreage in corn, soybeans, black walnut and other hardwood trees. His farm is benefiting from emerging seed technologies, GPS mapping, weather forecasting and other technologies — with Lugar seeing opportunity in the area of agricultural science.

“Ag science is capable of miraculous results,” Lugar said. “I’ve always believed we can develop technology to grow, steer and market a safe and nutritional supply of food.”

Retired from his days as a legislator, Lugar now serves as the president of the Lugar Center, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., that serves as a platform and voice for informed debate on global issues, including global food security and agriculture.

Lugar believes the U.S. should remain in a global leadership role in the realm of food production and safety, adding that U.S. researchers are the best in the world, churning out data on genetically modified foods and other seed technologies and staying ahead of serious pests and diseases that could impact the food supply. These researchers are coming out of the nation’s universities, which is why Lugar finds it important to fund the institutions completing the research.

“Unfortunately, recent cuts have undercut public leadership in agriculture education and research,” he said. “It’s imperative to return to investing in these institutions, especially with funded agriculture research.”

Attracting students to fill ag demand

With a changing idea of work due to the automation of many jobs, Jay Akridge, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs and diversity at Purdue University, wonders what work will look like in the future. However, he still believes human talent will be needed when it comes to many jobs, including some in agriculture and food.

“Ideas like food security will take human talent going forward,” he said.

There continues to be a demand for jobs in agriculture, but enrollment in agriculture programs at universities and colleges does not meet that demand. It’s not enough to have the opportunity anymore, Akridge argued. These institutions need to attract students with these interests and make the education accessible for them; otherwise, with no funding for research in the agriculture space, these students will go into other industries.

More collaborative programs and models need to be explored at institutions for higher learning by finding ways to blend school and work in different ways, and by looking into distance degrees and certification programs, Akridge said.

Student demographics are also changing. Fewer students seeking higher education are coming from rural and farming backgrounds. One-third of students are coming from a non-farming background while one-fifth of students are coming from a rural, but non-farming background.

Traditional students, typically described as 18 to 20 year olds, are now only making about 25 percent of the population. Non-traditional students at colleges and universities is growing, and so are the numbers when it comes to non-completers, students who started a degree and never finished. This, among other factors, is also leading to growing numbers of student debt.

“We are at a time where hoping it gets better isn’t enough,” Akridge said. “We need to act.”

Consider the value of return

Michael Martin, president of Florida Gulf University, believes there are six areas where we can create human return on investments in institutions of higher learning. The first area is with improving human capital, which Martin argues is the foundation for economic development, and producing good employees, leaders and citizens into communities across the country.

These graduates have the ability to spread what they learned above and beyond the confines of the campus, perhaps sharing research and information with Extension and educating the public about agriculture.

The researchers and research produced at universities in the U.S. is powerful, with those researchers a strong asset that will carry on either at a public or private entity.

These graduates also have the ability to serve as “a bridge to the world, a pay-off we don’t always appreciate,” Martin said. Graduates of universities and colleges can connect communities and others in ways that may not typically be done.

They will also serve as keepers of culture and history, showing others in communities across the country where we’ve been and that there are still things that are out there to be discovered.

Finally, these graduates will add to the local economy, with the university serving as its own economic engine, providing jobs and value on-campus and off. These need to be accounted for, Martin said.

“During difficult times, we sold ourselves and it has serious impacts,” he continued. “Public good needs to be revisited and we need to remind ourselves that we are in the public good business.

“We have a bigger obligation to put these people in place to continue to serve these institutions,” he added. “It’s not about us and them, but about the next generation.”