Politics & Government

Valley colleges could get new funding from farm bill

WASHINGTON — Central Valley colleges with large Hispanic populations could soon be tapping into fresh farm bill funding.

In a new twist on ethnically targeted federal aid, the Agriculture Department on Wednesday began preparing plans for distributing potentially millions of dollars to eligible colleges and universities. Some Valley schools, in particular, stand to benefit.

Stanislaus State and Fresno State, two California State University campuses with agricultural majors and student bodies that are more than 25 percent Hispanic, both appear ripe for the new funding. So do some of the Valley's community colleges, which share similar demographics and farm-related majors.

"It's tremendous," Mark Bender, the endowed chair of the Agriculture Studies Department at Stanislaus State, said Wednesday. "It does promote a great deal of innovation, especially to serve under-represented populations."

Existing Education Department grant programs already fund what are called Hispanic-serving institutions. These are schools with student bodies that are at least 25 percent Hispanic. About 260 schools nationwide have won the designation, with Valley participants ranging from the two state universities to Modesto Junior College and the College of the Sequoias.

These existing Education Department grants have paid for tutoring, faculty training, lab equipment purchase and more. In 2005, for instance, San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton and West Hills College in Lemoore both won grants exceeding $500,000.

The Agriculture Department has had a smaller grant program serving some of the same colleges. With this year's $296 billion farm bill, Congress significantly boosted the Agriculture Department's investment.

The bill establishes the new Hispanic-Serving Agricultural Colleges and Universities. These are defined as Hispanic-serving institutions that offer associate's or bachelor's degrees in "agriculture-related fields."

The farm bill offers the eligible schools an array of undergraduate forestry scholarships, institution-building assistance and research grants. The farm bill does not always spell out precisely how much money will be provided, although one existing grant fund is doubled from $20 million to $40 million.

"It's quite far reaching," said Charles Boyer, dean of Fresno State's College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. "There's a lot of tremendous potential."

Gumecino Salas, vice president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, added that "we were surprised by how much support" Congress offered the new programs.

Key questions remain, though, including who gets the money expected to start flowing next spring or summer.

Boyer and several other California agricultural educators will be attending an Oct. 12 public session in Denver, announced Wednesday by the Agriculture Department as a key step toward deciding exactly how schools can become eligible.

Stanislaus State and Fresno State definitely fit the bill, with their large Hispanic populations and well-subscribed agriculture-related majors. So do the likes of Merced College, where 38 percent of the students are Hispanic and associate degrees can range from horse management to horticulture.

Other schools will miss out, and Bender cautioned that some competition could ensue among colleges and universities seeking a piece of the funding pie. Boyer further added that educators will have to stay involved politically in order to ensure Congress follows through with the dollars that the farm bill authorizes.

The University of California-Merced and U.C. Davis campuses are not eligible for the new programs, because they are already part of an existing land grant college system.