Commentary

America's International-Education Programs Need a 21st-Century Makeover

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

May 05, 2011

I've worked in international education for almost my entire career, and at times most of my salary came from programs authorized under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which supports a variety of language and international studies at American universities. Title VI literally was my lifeblood for many years. But when I read the other day that its budget was being cut by 40 percent as a result of the fiscal 2011 budget deal between Congress and the White House, I cheered.

I'm not sure why Title VI ended up on the chopping block. But after years of living on the federal dole, I came to believe that most of the Title VI money is frittered away on programs that do little to serve the public good. I continue to believe in Title VI's core mission: supporting instruction in less-commonly taught languages, researching issues important to our national security, and ensuring that we have an electorate that is globally literate. And I believe our government has an important role to play in those areas. But the fundamental problem with the Title VI programs is that they were conceived for a post-World War II, pre-Internet America. Some of these programs serve a tiny number of people—mostly in academe—and many have suffered for lack of interest by anyone outside of the institutions that receive the government's financial support.

If we were to sit down today to design an international-education program to serve the needs of 21st-century America, it's hard to believe that we would replicate the Title VI programs. Take the projects I worked on. I received nearly a quarter of a million dollars at the University of Denver over several years to develop curriculum materials to teach about sub-Saharan Africa and South America in high-school classrooms. I'm proud of that work, which won an award in the field of educational publishing. But because American schools primarily buy textbooks to support their curricula, and because no part of my Title VI budget could be used to market my materials, they sit on a shelf, unused. I solved a problem that academics and Washington bureaucrats (and I) cared about. But it turned out that my intended audience didn't care a whit.

And that's the fundamental problem: There is little demand for the programs cooked up by the grant recipients. The federal dollars exist, and we academics dream up ways to finance our pet projects. Other academics review the proposals and decide who gets the money. No one takes the time to ask what the public wants or needs. The result is a lot of intellectually interesting stuff of little practical value.

A quick look at recent projects turns up myriad other examples. Title VI awarded nearly half a million dollars to create an illustrated online English-Malay dictionary. If our country needs more Malay speakers (and we do), is a dictionary the best way to support them? We also find a "CultureTalk" program of videotaped interviews with native speakers of some of the world's least commonly taught languages, costing $400,000. With access to YouTube, free global radio, and urban school systems in which nearly 80 languages are spoken, are such expenditures justifiable for doctoral students to learn Igbo, Zulu, or Thai?

The various Title VI academic centers (National Resource Centers, Language Resource Centers, and Centers for International Business Education) provide some excellent resources for advanced research in the obscure fields and parts of the world that might otherwise be neglected, were it not for federal money. Title VI funds historically have been crucial in building up these resources. But when are the resources adequate enough? Just because Title VI played an important role in the era between Sputnik and the fall of the Berlin Wall, must the gravy train roll on forever?

Furthermore, while applying to become a Title VI center is a competitive process, the list of universities that receive support for these centers is both short and stable. The same institutions, the same programs, and the same people seem to enjoy support year after year, while creative upstarts have difficulty breaking into the competition—precisely because they do not possess the fruits that come from past grant cycles. As a result, the program tends to reinforce the status quo, rather than promote systemic creativity and dynamism. And why would recipients want to question a status quo that helps pay their salaries? It would be too much to expect that the present system can reform itself—unless, perhaps, the funds dried up.

Still, we should reflect on how to improve international education, cuts or no cuts, money or no money. Here are some of my ideas for improving our collective capacity to engage with the world politically, economically, and even academically in the 21st century. They don't carry price tags, and some might be rather expensive. But repurposing the $126-million previously budgeted for Title VI programs would be a start.

Provide financial incentives to young people who learn less-commonly taught languages. For example, we could offer scholarships to students in intensive high-school and middle-school programs (like the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy) in Arabic or Chinese. We could also provide hefty college scholarships for high-school students who achieve a proficiency score of 2 on the ACTFL scale in a target language. We could also offer college scholarships or student-loan forgiveness for undergraduate students who study less-commonly taught languages, as we do for aspiring teachers and doctors who will work in underserved areas. We must create more demand for what higher education has to offer. At the moment, Title VI grantees dream up lots of great programs for which there is no demand. So turn the program on its head—and focus on generating demand for what academe now supplies.

We should support longer-term study-abroad programs for younger students. According to the Council for Standards on International Educational Travel, nearly 30,000 high-school students from around the world come to study in the United States for a semester or longer. Last year, a paltry 1,979 American high-school students studied abroad for a similar period. Government funds could help provide scholarships and promote American student involvement in such exchanges—especially to countries where less-commonly taught languages are spoken. In 2009, President Obama announced a "100,000 Strong" effort to get more American students to study in China—but no money was attached. The $50-million cut from Title VI would support over 4,000 high-school students to spend a year living and studying in China with AFS Intercultural Programs. Even if only 10 percent of those students later majored in Chinese in college, we would more than double the number of Americans majoring in Chinese (there were 289 bachelor's degrees in Chinese language and literature conferred in 2007-8, according to U.S. Department of Education). More demand for Chinese programs will bring more tuition dollars—making the programs self-sustaining.

We can provide more graduate support in selected fields, but tie that support to national service. The government should continue to provide—and probably expand—scholarship support for languages and academic fields important to national security. But it would seem fair to ask for a service commitment in return for a free education. This is how we structure our education at the service academies and for veterans under the GI Bill. We need more area expertise and language capacity in all our federal agencies, including not only the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, but also the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, and Agriculture, and even state and local governments. Let's support more graduate work in sensitive fields and require recipients to work in an international capacity in our government for a few years.

Expand the Peace Corps budget. The Peace Corps supports over 8,600 volunteers annually in 77 countries and functions on a relatively small budget of $400-million. Many of these volunteers learn less-commonly taught languages and end up in graduate programs at universities funded by Title VI. Whether or not they go on to graduate education, Peace Corps volunteers return to contribute in all manner of professions in the United States, and their global experience helps us advocate for more and better international education for future generations.

Sometimes the loss of federal funds is healthy. Nothing can generate creativity like turning off the money spigot. My hope is that the leaders of those programs that stand to lose grants do not waste too much time with cries of woe. Academe generally, and the Title VI community in particular, has a vital role to play in fostering broader and deeper discussion about how to educate Americans for more a global, competitive, and perhaps more dangerous world. Trying to hang on to a program for which there is little political, public, or financial support will be a waste of time and effort.

Instead, let's get out there and be more creative. No matter how dire our national budget picture may be today, it will eventually improve. And when the coffers are again full, we should be ready to lobby for more money to finance bolder, more effective, and more far-reaching programs for the future, and resist the impulse to resurrect outmoded, irrelevant programs of the past.

Mark A. Montgomery is president of Montgomery Educational Consulting, a company that helps foreign students select and apply to universities in the United States.

 


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