- The U.S. Department of Education and higher ed groups remain at odds over how colleges should report foreign gifts based on Section 117 of the Higher Education Act (HEA) following probes by the federal agency into a handful of institutions.
- In letters exchanged between the department and the American Council on Education (ACE), the latter claims the department has not sufficiently responded to its request for clarification on Section 117.
- In a July 12 letter cosigned by other higher ed groups, ACE said the department has "steadfastly declined" to answer compliance-related questions it posed in two letters earlier this year, and that a department letter on July 3 pointing ACE back to Section 117 suggests it "plans to enforce vague, incomplete, confusing, and obsolete guidance."
In the July 3 letter, the department also indicated it may publish conditions for discretionary grants as well as a notice that colleges' compliance with foreign gifts reporting requirements is "in the national security interest" of the U.S.
In its response, ACE said those changes would do "nothing to clarify the current, limited guidance" and may even expand the current rules. It suggested a formal rulemaking process that allows for public comments.
Meanwhile, the Ed Department has widened its investigation into foreign funds flowing to universities, adding probes of Cornell and Rutgers to that of Georgetown and Texas A&M, according to The Associated Press.
"My fear is more and more institutions will be drawn into this kind of investigation, even though the (Ed) Department has not issued clear regulations on reporting requirements," said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government and public affairs at ACE, in an interview with Education Dive. ACE represents more than 1,700 leaders of colleges and industry groups.
In earlier letters, ACE asked for clarification in four areas:
- The value and volume of gifts needing to be reported
- The definition of an institution of higher education
- When it is sufficient to report only a gift's country of origin
- How institutions should submit changes to previous reports
"These are very specific questions and none have been answered," Spreitzer said, adding that unclear rules would put a reporting burden on institutions and cause over-reporting by "already attentive" ones.
The Ed Department's probe of the four universities includes funding from Qatar and China, among other countries, The AP reported. Qatar is the biggest donor to U.S. colleges, the publication notes, funneling more than $1.4 billion to 28 schools in the last 10 years compared to $900 million from England, the next-largest contributor.
Meanwhile, U.S. colleges have been reexamining their relationships with other countries. Several have dropped China-run Confucius Institutes over academic freedom concerns and have evaluated ties with Saudi Arabia in light of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate.
The rhetoric surrounding foreign gifts to U.S. institutions has not gone down well with some countries, like China, which last month warned its students about the "risks" of attending American universities. Shifting relations stand to affect enrollment of international students, a key revenue stream, who are increasingly turning to Australia, Canada and the U.K., where policies are more favorable to them. U.K. colleges have already seen a 30% uptick in applications from China this year, The Guardian reported.
As it is, in 2017-18, stricter U.S. visa policies contributed to a 6.6% year-over-year decline in new international student enrollment at U.S. institutions, where they are a key revenue stream, according to research cited by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
ACE's Spreitzer hopes international collaborations won't be affected but added that "this kind of rhetoric isn't helpful."