Economy Forces Land-Grant Universities to Reshape Extension Work

Brad Beckman, U. of Idaho

Children prepare their sheep for an agricultural fair in Boise, Idaho, where university officials are working with farmers and commodity associations to keep open three agricultural-research centers threatened by state-budget reductions.
December 13, 2009

The extension budgets of many land-grant universities are taking big hits in the current economic downturn, accelerating changes in how public institutions deliver and finance their outreach services.

To close budget gaps, extension officials are paring back less-popular programs, seeking outside grants and private financial support, and shuttering local offices in favor of a regional approach to outreach work.

At many universities, such shifts were already under way, but precipitous declines in state and local aid have hastened the pace of change.

"It's not strictly a crisis reaction to the budget," says A. Scott Reed, vice provost for university outreach and engagement at Oregon State University. "Extension has long been in a mode of evolutionary change. But the budget environment moves it toward revolutionary change."

The cutbacks also have raised concerns that some land-grant institutions could limit their historic extension mission, even as taxpayers look to universities to play a more substantive role in community and economic outreach. That longtime mission calls for cooperative-extension services, as they are known, to provide useful information to agricultural producers, small-business owners, and other members of the public.

"This is something we can't back up on any more," says Keith L. Smith, director of Ohio State University Extension and associate vice president for agricultural administration. "We're getting close to losing the core."

Widespread Pain

The financing of universities' extension efforts has been compared to a three-legged stool, with federal, state, and local governments sharing in the costs. While federal spending on extension activities actually has risen slightly, by 3.6 percent from the last fiscal year to this one, budgets on both the state and local levels have been battered, knocking out two critical legs of financial support.

The budgetary bad news is widespread and far from over. In Ohio, one county cut off all financing for extension work; only an anonymous donation of $100,000 kept programs going. Idaho lawmakers slashed the budget for extension and agricultural research by 17.5 percent.

Oregon State's extension programs took a 10-percent cut in the current biennial budget, and Mr. Reed is bracing for the fiscal pain to worsen. A tax-repeal proposal is on the ballot this January and is expected to pass, almost certainly forcing further spending reductions.

In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, backed off a plan that would have decimated Michigan State University's budget for extension services and agricultural research by eliminating half of their $64-million in state support. The money was restored, but 44 percent of the services' budget now is paid out of federal-stimulus funds, which will expire after a year. Thomas G. Coon, the university's extension director, has begun planning for a large budgetary hole in the coming year.

Iowa State University, home to the nation's oldest extension service, was hit with a cut of 10.7 percent, or $4.2-million, in its extension programming. As a result, the 103-year-old program is now going through the most significant overhaul of its history. The university threw out its 100 county-based districts and replaced them with 20 regional centers, eliminating its county- and area-director positions. (Iowa State was able to limit layoffs after 60 employees accepted early-retirement offers, says Jack M. Payne, vice president for extension and outreach.)

"The choice we had to make was to lessen the administrative structure if we wanted to save programs," Mr. Payne says. "But it takes away the high-touch, face-to-face service we offered."

Other states are moving in a similar direction. Oregon State has begun coordinating programs and administration across counties. Michigan State is jettisoning its 82 county offices and reorganizing staff members into program-based institutes.

The University of Minnesota was the first to adopt a regional structure, during a budget downturn earlier this decade. It pruned 15 percent of its work force in the process. But a 6-percent state-budget reduction this fiscal year meant Minnesota's extension service had to become even leaner, closing two of its 18 regional offices, says Beverly R. Durgan, dean of extension.

Extension offices are looking for ways to lessen the effects of the shift away from a local presence. In Oregon, employees are training volunteers to provide some services they once handled, such as gardening advice.

But extension directors say residents used to dropping by the local extension office will have to adjust to a system that relies much more heavily on toll-free help lines and Web sites. Louisiana State Cooperative Extension's Web site, for one, now gets two million page views monthly.

Not every state has embraced a regional approach. The University of Idaho is attempting to consolidate some of its administrative functions, but Charlotte Eberlein, director of extension, says many of the state's communities are simply too remote to make a purely regional system work.

Entrepreneurial Extension

Ms. Durgan, of Minnesota, says the new budgetary environment means that extension programs need to become more strategic and entrepreneurial. After her university moved to a regional model, five years ago, it asked individual counties to determine what extension programs they most wanted and drew up contracts detailing the services to be provided and their costs. As a result, she says, Minnesota has no county-based family extension educators who provide information on topics like parenting and is largely unable to make visits to advise individual farmers.

Ms. Durgan says each regional office also developed a business plan, outlining, among other things, grants, sponsorships, and other possible revenue sources. In three years, Minnesota's extension service has increased the money it receives from outside sources by 20 percent. It now gets almost as much from grants and fees as it does from the state.

In Oregon, too, revenue from grants and contracts has shot up, from $8-million in 2007 to $23-million in 2008. The funds are filling in for declines not just in state appropriations but also in support from local sources, Mr. Reed says.

The extension service, however, cannot "just chase the dollar," he warns, but needs to find partners with similar missions. Oregon State, for example, now has an extension-faculty member in nutrition working with, and supported by, a local food bank.

Idaho officials have begun working with farmers and commodity associations to keep open, at least temporarily, three agricultural-research centers scheduled to be closed as part of the budget reductions. The industry groups have offered to help underwrite the centers' research and operating costs.

Some states have pooled resources. The University of Minnesota and Iowa State, for example, operate a joint phone line for callers with questions about consumer issues, like canning.

Other universities have worked to tap other state and federal funds. Ohio State's 4-H programs have been awarded grants to offer driver-safety education to teenage traffic offenders and to start after-school programs in science, engineering, and mathematics. Louisiana State has received funds from the Department of Defense to reach out to military families.

Still, Mr. Payne, of Iowa State, says he worries about the toll that cutbacks in public funds will have on extension programs. "It all comes back to the mission of the land-grant institution," he says, "and I worry that is eroding."

If extension programs are to thrive, he argues, they must show that they are relevant to both the state and to the university. Extension agents, he points out, play a wide array of roles, including providing nutrition advice to poor mothers and serving as the public face of the university in far-off counties.

At Michigan State, officials have crafted a strategic plan for what they call a 21st-century extension service. As part of that effort, the university will focus more of its work on green jobs and the green economy, through doing research on sustainable-agriculture practices and providing training in energy efficiency, among other efforts. "Everything we do has to be framed as something that helps Michigan's economy," says Mr. Coon, the extension director.

The University of Idaho's new president, M. Duane Nellis, recently spent 10 days crisscrossing the state on a listening tour. He came away with the understanding that residents want to be better connected to the university.

Mr. Nellis, who became president in July, has formed a universitywide "engagement council," with the goal of building on Idaho's extension strengths to expand its outreach mission.

"One of the things I thought was striking," he says, "is the extent to which they really validated the land-grant mission."