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Stimulus to kick start cash-strapped higher ed

Higher education officials are awaiting an injection of $32 billion in federal money after Congress passed the economic stimulus bill last week, aiming to jumpstart a slumbering economy in part by making college more affordable and funding campus projects that have run out of state funds in recent months.

University decision makers and governors nationwide are touting "shovel ready" projects — campus improvements ready for construction — as President Barack Obama prepares to sign the bill later today that will pump federal dollars into cash-strapped colleges.

Some of the country’s largest universities are anticipating an influx of about $15 billion for campus-based scientific research included in the stimulus. 

Projections of how much of the stimulus money states will receive are preliminary, but many governors have estimates of how their states will benefit. For example, Nebraska colleges and universities expect to get a portion of $230 million set aside for an incentive program, according to federal and state statistics. More than $3 million will be allocated to bolster educational technology in Nebraska classrooms.

Massachusetts lawmakers expect state college renovations to be included in more than $2 billion reserved for education improvements. Universities and colleges in Georgia expect to receive a portion of $1.2 billion in education funds set aside for modernization efforts.

Obama’s repeated commitment to expand high-speed internet connections to rural areas limited to slow dialup connections will jump start distance education programs at universities that serve rural populations, higher education officials said.

Walt Magnussen, director of telecommunications at Texas A&M University, said many of the school’s students live in rural areas with limited or no access to broadband web connections. This has been a roadblock for students who would like to take web-based courses, but find themselves limited by dialup connections.

"It’s a real challenge to do this in areas that are underserved," said Magnussen, former president of the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA). "In many cases, there are no broadband options. … It was great for five years ago, but not adequate for what we’re striving for right now. And hopefully, this stimulus package will turn that around."

Campuses like Texas A&M, Magnussen said, can develop the most up-to-date web applications, but without high-speed internet connections in nearby rural areas, students can’t benefit from the technology.

"I can have the greatest applications in the world, but if I don’t have any way of delivering them, they’re useless," he said.

Mark Luker, vice president of the education technology advocate organization EDUCAUSE, said in a statement that expanding broadband could have far-reaching effects for colleges’ online learning programs.

"EDUCAUSE is pleased with the new support for extending broadband connections to rural and underserved areas, since this will improve access to education and increase participation in research, a powerful long-term benefit as well as a short-term economic stimulus," Luker said.

Several Missouri colleges and universities have cancelled or postponed construction projects that were slated to be funded by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA). After missing a series of payments to the Missouri state government, MOHELA now owes more than $10 million. The agency finds itself in the red for the first time since its creation in the early 1980s.

While state and campus officials anticipate money for long-awaited projects, students will soon benefit from increases in tuition assistance. With the passage of the stimulus package, the maximum Pell Grant, which helps the lowest-income students attend college, would increase from $4,731 currently to $5,350 starting July 1 and $5,550 per year in 2010-2011. That would cover three-quarters of the average annual cost of a four-year college. An extra 800,000 students, for a total of about 7 million, are now expected to receive Pell funding.

The stimulus also increases the tuition tax credit to $2,500 and makes it 40 percent refundable, so families who don’t earn enough to pay income tax could still get up to $1,000 in extra tuition help.

Computer expenses will now be an allowable expense for 529 college savings plans.

The final package cut $6 billion the House wanted to spend to kick-start building projects on college campuses. But parts of the $54 billion state stabilization fund — with $39 billion set aside for education — can be used for modernizing facilities.

Funding for the National Institutes of Health includes $1.5 billion set aside for university research facilities.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.



Texas A&M University

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