Politics & Policy

Rhetoric & Reform

Are taxpayers getting their money's worth on higher education?

For decades Congress has invested millions of dollars in university-level international studies. Yet when Congress seeks accountability both in how the funds are used and in whether the courses provide a diversity of opinion, academia paints an Orwellian picture of heavy-handed censorship.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now more than ever, Americans of nearly every profession realize they do not live in a global vacuum. U.S. interests abroad and national-security concerns at home have become larger priorities in a world shaped by terrorism, and by the diplomatic and military efforts to defeat it. The success of American interests–whether in business, industry, education, politics, trade, commerce, or national and international security–relies on an accurate understanding of the international dynamic.

Congress has responded by significantly increasing funding for international-studies programs (authorized under Title VI of the Higher Education Act) since Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004, nearly $90 million in Title VI grants were awarded to colleges and universities across the country.

However, this new priority brings with it the responsibility to ensure a diversity of perspectives within those international-studies programs that receive federal funding–including perspectives from outside the realm of academia and the Department of Education.

The 108th Congress has before it the opportunity to reauthorize Title VI programs through the International Studies in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3077). These programs include international and foreign-language studies, business and international-education programs, and international-diplomacy programs. Originally created in the National Defense Act of 1958, Title VI programs are intended to strengthen knowledge of the underserved, underrepresented, and lesser-known areas and languages of the world.

To ensure that Title VI programs coordinate with other federal programs in creating an informed citizenry, the bill creates an International Education Advisory Board for all programs in the title.

Despite the outcry from academia, the advisory board is not a censoring panel. This fear is neither consistent with the intent of Congress nor compatible with the text of the legislation. On the contrary, H.R. 3077 requires Title VI programs to teach diverse perspectives and specifically prohibits the advisory board from directing programs and instructional methods or dictating curriculum.

Members of the board will be appointed by the leadership of both parties in both chambers of Congress. Representation of federal agencies, such as the Department of State and the National Security Agency, will ensure all stakeholders have a voice.

The creation of an advisory board is a response to a question that Congress must ask itself: Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth in these programs? Congress needs know whether these programs are fulfilling the purposes established in their authorizing legislation. They also need to know when the programs are not working, and when they need to be improved or altered.

Despite the “doomsday concerns” put forth by academia, not a single institution or program is required to accept Title VI funding. It is additional funding awarded through a competitive grant process to institutions of higher education that voluntarily compete for it.

Neither is the advisory board a new idea; the board existed for years before it was cut due to budget concerns in the late 1980s. Censorship was never a concern raised by the academic community during the board’s previous incarnation.

This controversy is simply rhetoric: The International Studies in Higher Education Act received strong bipartisan support in the House Education and Workforce Committees in September 2003, and passed the House unanimously in October of that year. Not a single member voted against this bill at any stage of its development.

The time for the Senate to act on this bill is quickly coming to an end, and with it, a golden opportunity for Congress to help ensure that American tax dollars are being spent appropriately in an increasingly important area of higher education.

U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R., Mich.) is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He is the author of the International Studies in Higher Education Act.

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