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Senate Bill to Help Minority-Serving Institutions Meet IT Challenges

Senate Bill to Help Minority-Serving Institutions Meet IT Challenges
Legislation authorizes $250 million a year for technology improvements
By Charles Dervarics

Black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges would get a new source of federal funding for technology improvements under legislation that unanimously cleared the U.S. Senate on April 30.

The Minority Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Technology Opportunity Act would create a new program at the National Science Foundation to help HBCUs and other institutions develop a technology infrastructure. The bill authorizes $250 million a year for five years, beginning in 2004.

“This legislation will provide vital resources to address the technology gap that exists at many minority-serving institutions,” says Sen. George Allen, R-Va., prime sponsor of the bill.

For many HBCUs and HSIs, the digital divide “really is an ‘economic opportunity’ divide,” he says. Many of these colleges need to modernize their IT structures, while their students — unlike those at majority-White institutions — often lack their own personal computers.

About 13 HBCUs say none of their students have a personal computer, while among all HBCUs, 70 percent of students rely on colleges to provide them with computer access, Allen said. At the same time, many of these institutions trail better-funded institutions in their technology infrastructure.

“So it is not surprising that most HBCUs do not have high-speed Internet access,” he says. With the funding, HBCUs, HSIs and tribal colleges can purchase equipment, networks, hardware and software, digital network technology and wireless technology.

Allen noted that IT jobs also are among the highest paying jobs for college graduates. With minorities set to represent 40 percent of college students within 10 years, they are the nation’s future work force. “We must tap the underutilized talent of our minority-serving institutions to ensure that America’s work force is prepared to lead the world,” he says.

Approval of the bill followed a public hearing at which HBCU leaders documented many of their IT challenges. Lawmakers heard from Norfolk State University President Marie McDemmond and other sector leaders.

“We cannot operate a modern college or university today without being up-to-date with information technology,” says Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., another supporter of the legislation. Talent said many HBCUs lack funds for technology centers. Yet, even those that do face problems.

He cited the example of Harris-Stowe College in St. Louis, which has a 5-year-old technology center built with the help of a grant. But, the college still needs funds to modernize the facility. After five years, the center is “greatly in need of a technology upgrade,” he says.

Despite the unanimous vote, the bill did not clear the U.S. Congress without some partisan sniping. Similar legislation was proposed last year by Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., but it fell victim to politics, said Sen. Patrick Leahy,  D-Vt.

The Senate delayed action last year, “presumably in order to deny Sen. Cleland any victory as he sought re-election. Given the dire state of many of the schools this bill seeks to help, it is quite frustrating that Sen. Cleland’s bill fell victim to political machinations,” Leahy told colleagues.

Cleland lost his re-election bid last fall.

The legislation needs House approval before it can become law. For more information about the bill, S. 196, contact Allen’s office at (202) 224-4024.

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