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House Moves Ahead on Digital Divide Help

House Moves Ahead on Digital Divide Help
Plan would provide as much as $2.5 million per college
By Charles Dervarics

A bill to help Black colleges with the digital divide is finally making progress in the House of Representatives after sponsors sidestepped some potential obstacles.

The House Science Committee approved the bill in July, paving the way for consideration by the full chamber. If signed into law, the bill could provide $1.25 billion over five years to help minority-serving institutions upgrade their computers and communication systems.
“It is in the national interest to ensure that minority-serving institutions have the capability to provide a quality education for their students,” says Rep. Eddie ­Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, a committee member. The Senate already endorsed a similar bill, 97-0, earlier this year.
Black college leaders say the plan may bring as much as $2.5 million per college to upgrade infrastructure, including wireless and other technologies. The problem is particularly acute because 75 percent of HBCU students do not have their own computers, says Dr. Frederick Humphries, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
Moreover, Humphries told lawmakers in July, most HBCUs do not have high-speed Internet connections or their own computer labs and systems. Black colleges, he said, cannot help students address the “computer ownership gap.”
Hispanic-serving institutions and other minority-serving colleges also could obtain funding under the plan.
Yet the action came only after lawmakers, HBCUs and congressional aides examined is sues on the program’s structure and operation. Much of the debate focused on what federal agency would house such a large new program. Senate and some House sponsors had proposed placing the program at the National Science Foundation, but NSF took the unusual step of publicly opposing such an approach.
While the science agency supports an effort to increase aid to Black colleges, “NSF would not be the right entity to administer it,” says Dr. Rita Colwell, the science agency’s administrator.
During its first year, the new program would represent 5 percent of NSF’s total budget, which could leave other programs open to cuts. Given federal budget constraints, she said, it would be “impossible” to fund the program at its requested levels.
The bill also would require the science agency to fund “every single eligible institution that applies, regardless of merit,” Colwell says. Yet the remainder of agency programs provide funding based on a rigorous evaluation process based on scientific value. Moreover, while NSF has a responsibility to help improve science capacity at colleges, it is not the agency’s role to promote high-bandwidth Internet connections at these schools.
Colwell’s views drew some support among House GOP leaders. “I’m concerned that this will jeopardize other NSF programs to help minorities,” says Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., chairman of a science research subcommittee.
After several days of deliberations, lawmakers opted to move the program from NSF to the U.S. Commerce Department. The bill approved by the Senate still recommends NSF oversight, but aides said that House members cleared the change with sponsors in the other chamber, Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz.
The House also dealt with another potential obstacle — the review process to be used in assessing grant applications. Advocates had wanted to give minority-serving colleges and universities representation in this process.
The Senate bill would require an advisory council to help evaluate applications, and the council would include input from minority-serving colleges. Under the House plan, colleges would file applications with the undersecretary of commerce, who would consult an advisory council of college representatives and experts in digital and wireless technology. Applications also would receive scrutiny from review panels whose members are familiar with issues affecting minority-serving colleges and universities.
While differences remain, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., a co-sponsor, was optimistic. “Just as the government has a responsibility to ensure that students have up-to-date textbooks and classrooms, we must also ensure that all of our students have access to modern technology services,” he says.

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