Penn State Ag Budget Hits the Chopping Block; Is that Bad or Just Necessary? A Perspective by an Undergraduate Student

By Will Nichols

In the spirit of promoting undergraduate education that is different and “outside the classroom”, I am posting this article that was written by Will Nichols, a senior at Penn State (his short bio is at the bottom of the blog).  Will’s blog was first posted on Pearl Snaps’ Ponderings blogsite.  Enjoy reading the blog.

Wisconsin’s government may be receiving national attention for congressional efforts to balance its budget in this troubled economy, but it’s far from the only state taking drastic measures to balance the books. Pennsylvania is right there with it, under newly-elected Governor Tom Corbett. He seeks a budget balanced not by raising taxes, but by cutting spending from the current $4 billion deficit. When he presented his proposed budget for the coming year, the Pennsylvania State University’s appropriations were cut by 52%. Ag funding in particular has been cut in half, too, to $26 million.

That will affect farmers and non-farmers alike, all across Pennsylvania.

Penn Staters are understandably upset – outraged, even – by the total $182 million reduction. No one wants to see Dear Old State’s budget cut so drastically. Its President, Graham Spanier, warned that this budget could have a devastating effect on Pennsylvania’s families. And while Penn State is not the only state-funded university in the state (Temple, Pitt and Lincoln receive funding and received cuts, too), it is the state’s land-grant university.

It makes sense that the College of Agricultural Sciences is its largest college, too. And most expensive, as the home of Cooperative Extension and research and educational farm units spread over 13,800 acres of research land. It hosts 2,500 undergrads and 460 graduate students over 19 majors and 24 minors.

So it bears the brunt of the impact. The College of Ag Sciences has already worked to trim the “subcutaneous” fat. It’s currently been working on the “seam fat.” This news means the college will have to look at making the difficult decisions to finally cut some of the meat.

We’re not sure what will happen. Corbett’s proposal is just that – a proposal. It has to be ratified by the legislature, which may restore some of Penn State’s funding due to strong lobbying efforts from its constituents – lots of people across Pennsylvania.

So we’re facing the possibility of program cuts and tuition hikes. The situation looks kind of bleak. It sure could be worse, but it should probably be a little better.

Penn State’s appropriations haven’t seen a substantial increase in a decade, so such a drastic cut to Pennsylvania’s land-grant institution seems a bit harsh to me. (Also remember that Penn State is one of the most expensive public universities in the country – in-state tuition is around $15,000 per year, out-of-state is $27,000.) Fortunately, the College of Ag Sciences awards about $1.8 million in scholarships to its students annually. We get by with a little help from our friends.

But some perspective is important. Eight percent of Penn State’s budget comes from the state. Seventeen percent of its educational budget comes from the state. Seventy-five percent is spent on payroll. And that gets spread over 90,000 students at 24 campuses and online. (It runs the local airport, too.) So a 4% total budget reduction? With apologies to Han Solo, “It may not sound like much but it’s got it where it counts, kid.” That’s still a lot of money and will likely mean tuition hikes and layoffs.

Yes, Penn State has built more buildings under Spanier than any other previous administration. And there are lots of people paid lots of money each year. Much of that all is privately funded from generous donors. They may become an even more critical source of funding. We’d be even closer to being a private university. That’s not what we were designed to be.

So what if we’re just finally getting our share of the hard times? The college never got hit hard in the initial meltdown – we should feel fortunate that it’s taken this long to arrive. Lower taxes and a smaller government can’t happen if the state keeps on doling out money, even to worthy causes.

Is this cut unfair? Maybe. Is it warranted? Probably. Will it, coupled with other budget cuts that together balance the budget, be helpful to Pennsylvania? Possibly. Will other states be looking to see how this gamble works out for Pennsylvania, and possibly apply it to themselves? Likely.

The only certainty is that Penn State’s College of Ag Sciences will finally suffer greatly from the effects of the troubled economy and out-of-control spending in Harrisburg (and Washington, D.C.). Let’s hope the suffering ends quickly so we can get back to the agricultural research and education that helps improve lives across the world.


Will Nichols is a senior at Penn State majoring in Animal Science and minoring in Agribusiness Management and Ag Communications. He raises registered Angus cattle on a small farm nestled in the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania. He enjoys music, writing, photography and videography, and plans a career where those loves intersect with his passion — agriculture — a career that will aid and strengthen American agriculture in this global economy.


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