Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

House Moves Ahead on Digital Divide Help

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

House Moves Ahead on Digital Divide Help

Article excerpt

Plan would provide as much as $2.5 million per college

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 issues 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. …

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