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Minority-Serving Institutions Find New Technology Advocates

Minority-Serving Institutions Find New Technology Advocates
Tech funding is one of several higher ed bills before Congress.

By Charles Dervarics

When the new U.S. Senate opened for business in January, it didn’t take long for minority-serving colleges to find a new sponsor for a
$250 million technology bill for historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.

The bill to help address the digital divide at minority-serving institutions won new life in the chamber thanks to Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and John Kerry, D-Mass., who stepped in as the new sponsors of the measure. U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., will also champion the measure with U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

For several years, the bill’s main advocate was Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who lost a close re-election bid to Webb in November. A few African-American leaders had supported Allen for re-election, citing
his support for this bill, even after the senator faced criticisms of racial insensitivity after remarks made to one of Webb’s campaign workers.

The Minority Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology Opportunity Act has had a complicated history, occasionally winning support from the full Senate but never reaching the White House. In the last Congress, the plan again cleared the Senate but never made it past a committee vote in the House.

The House and Senate bills have had some different provisions. While each chamber has proposed $250 million in annual funding, the Senate would run the program through the National Science Foundation while the House bill would rely on the U.S. Commerce Department.
In introducing the measure in January, Smith and Kerry talked optimistically of the bill’s prospects.

“These grants will help colleges and universities remove roadblocks to the information superhighway for many of our country’s minorities,” said Smith, a second-term senator.

HBCUs, HSIs and tribal colleges could receive grants for digital wireless
networks or other technology and communications upgrades to improve teaching and learning.

“Access to technology is a key element to a quality education,” said Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee. “This assistance for minority educational institutions will help remove the technological disparities and ensure the success for all young Americans in school and in work.” 

Both Kerry and Smith are members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where the bill will get its first review. No timetable has yet been set.

A companion bill has not yet been introduced in the House. Aides to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., last year’s sponsor, say he is in talks with Congressional Black Caucus member U.S. Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., about reintroducing the bill.

The technology bill is among several higher education proposals vying for attention in the House and Senate during the early days of the 110th Congress. In the House, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, has introduced a bill to provide federal support for graduate programs at Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.

The Next Generation Hispanic-Serving Institutions Act would authorize
$300 million in 2008 and additional sums in future years to help HSIs buy, rent or lease equipment, construct or renovate classrooms and support faculty development for their graduate programs. The bill would authorize competitive grants to HSIs with post-baccalaureate programs.

The House also named Hinojosa as the new chairman of the House’s higher education subcommittee. Aside from the HSI bill, one item on Hinojosa’s agenda likely will be reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Action on HEA renewal stalled in the last Congress.

Here are brief descriptions of other new bills in the 110th Congress:

– The public could access a Web-based tool to compare colleges and universities under the College Affordability and Transparency Act from Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. The resource would provide information on tuition, fees, room and board as well as graduation rates and faculty-to-student ratios. The bill was referred to the Education and Labor panel.

– Several new bills would seek reforms in the way the U.S. tax code affects those paying for higher education. Included on that list is Kerry’s plan to replace the HOPE and Lifelong Learning tax credits with a new education opportunity credit with benefits up to $2,500 per year. Unlike the current tax credits, the new plan would better target aid to low-income families, Kerry said.

– The Senate will get a chance to consider student loan interest rate cuts under a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. The bill would cut many subsidized loan interest rates by half over a five-year period. The House already has passed this legislation as part of that chamber’s “first 100 hours” agenda to help working-class Americans.

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