During our September 26 Redesign webinar, we shared information about the draft policy that is being developed on cost recovery for programs in our new structure (you can advance to this section of the September 26 webinar by moving to the 31:50 time mark in the webinar). During the webinar and afterwards, colleagues have shared questions and concerns that are quite welcome and helpful as we think through this policy and design it well. One of my greatest concerns is that we apply this policy consistently throughout the organization. As with any policy, we ultimately must rely on the judgment and integrity of everyone in Michigan State University Extension to apply the policy consistently and yet remain consistent with our other values and policies as well. We are still refining the policy and communications about the policy, but I thought it might be helpful to share a perspective that I didn’t share during the webinar.
Some see the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and some see MSUE as the stewards or safeguards of the land-grant mission at MSU. My personal opinion is that President Simon holds that responsibility, and having listened carefully to her speeches and having read her communications over the past six years, I am convinced as ever that she is not only committed to our land-grant mission, but she is its chief advocate and proponent. Still, some see changes such as our move to apply fees for repeated education and visits with individuals – whether farms, businesses, families or communities – as an erosion or even abandonment of the land-grant mission. I would argue that this policy is not about the mission. We are stewards of public investments to have access to the resources, experts, research and extension programs, that equip us to translate research into practice. This remains at the core of what we’re doing in our programs – whether we are delivering to one individual or to a group of hundreds through online programs. The issue is about applying those public investments fairly and judiciously to public needs and then applying private investments to the application of these publicly funded resources to private interest needs.
Reflecting back a few decades, the education mission of MSU was highly subsidized by public funds. In the 1960s, the state of Michigan appropriations covered 65 percent of the cost of MSU’s academic programs. Private funds – tuition and fees – covered the other 35 percent. As public investments have weakened in the past four decades, the burden of that funding has shifted more and more to the private interest that benefits from education – the individual students. Today, tuition and fees cover 65 percent of the cost of MSU’s academic programs and public funds cover the remainder. That has been achieved through a series of increases in tuition and fees. If the Board of Trustees had not increased tuition over that time, the ability of MSU to fulfill its education mission and to deliver the quality of education expected from the state’s land-grant university would have been undermined. From the perspective of someone who paid tuition in 1965, the university seems to have moved away from its principle of remaining accessible to the children of all of Michigan’s mothers and fathers. From the perspective of someone paying tuition in 2011, the university seems to be operating like other universities, trying to balance accessibility to all with the need to ensure the integrity of the university with funds need to operate a 21st century university. And as tuition and fees have increased, MSU has become more aggressive about increasing the amount of financial aid available for those who are qualified to study at MSU, but whose resources otherwise limit them from attending.
MSUE has faced reductions in public investments over the same period. We do not charge tuition, and we do not benefit from the university’s collection of tuition. As we look ahead, it’s not likely that we’ll see a return to higher funding levels for MSUE in the near future. Yet the costs of delivering on the Extension leg of the land-grant mission continue to increase. As stewards of the Extension mission for MSU, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are developing other funding sources so that we can fulfill our mission. There are multiple sources of funding we need to pursue, including contracts and grants from state, federal and non-government sources, gifts from donors (individuals, companies and foundations), and fees for services that serve a specific individual need. So while charging for repeated visits with a farmer or a community or a family may seem out of line with our past practices, it is not out of line with our mission. As long as we are balancing the public investment to serve public needs and expecting private investments for serving private needs, I think we are not only consistent with our mission, but we are acting responsibly to ensure the ongoing availability of our education and applied research services.
As part of our commitment to serve all residents, we must acknowledge that there may be some individuals who do not have the resources to pay for what clearly serves a private need. In that case, we need to develop a companion policy and set of resources – perhaps resulting from gifts from donors or sponsors – to subsidize the needs of those who lack the ability to pay. Your thoughts on how to develop and implement an explicit “financial aid” policy would be welcome.