Closing the Digital Divide at Minority-serving Institutions

The U.S. Senate has approved
a new $250 million federal program to address the digital divide at
historically Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and other minority-serving
universities, as part of a far-reaching higher education reform bill that also
simplifies the federal financial aid application.

The Senate added
the technology initiative to the Higher Education Act Amendments of 2007, a
bill that would target more funds for need-based financial aid as well as other
improvements in federal higher education policy. Through the new program,
minority-serving colleges could purchase hardware, software, wireless
technology, digital networks and other infrastructure. They also could use
proceeds to offer students universal access to campus networks.

Under debate on
Capitol Hill for much of the decade, the bill cleared the Senate with no
opposition. “It has been a long climb up the mountain,” says U.S. Sen. John
Warner, R-Va., a long-time proponent of the measure.

Warner says the
legislation meets an urgent need he first noticed in the 1980s when visiting Virginia’s
six HBCUs. “I noticed the absence of so much infrastructure in these struggling
institutions that other institutions had in abundance,” he says.

More than 200
HSIs, 100 HBCUs and 30 tribal colleges would be eligible for grants. The
measure still needs approval from the House of Representatives.

The MSI
provision was one of many amendments to the HEA
bill, which cleared the Senate by a 95-0 vote on Tuesday. Other changes in the
Senate HEA bill would:

Increase the maximum Pell Grant to at least
$5,400 within five years;

Simplify the Free Application for Federal
Financial Aid, cutting the form from seven pages to two;

Forgive the loans of student borrowers who work
in public service careers for at least 10 years; and

Prohibit payments from educational lenders to
schools or school officials.

To help
students with the burden of repaying loans, the bill also would cap monthly
loan payments at 15 percent of an individual’s discretionary income.

In an effort to
control costs, the measure would set up a nationwide watch list of institutions
whose annual increases are far above their peers.

“As we provide
more aid to students, this bill recognizes that colleges need to do their part
to keep college costs down,” says U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, who chairs
the Senate’s education panel.

Another
provision would create an early notification program so students learn in
advance how much federal aid they likely would receive. Under this pilot
initiative, many students would receive a financial estimate by their junior
year of high school.

If approved by the House, the bill would be the
first major reauthorization of HEA since 1998. The last authorization expired in 2003,
and Congress has been unable to approve a renewal package since that time.

– Charles Dervarics

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