When a chart of all cuts in the 2011 budget passed by Congress on Thursday was made public earlier this week, international-education advocates received an unpleasant surprise: funding for foreign language and area studies programs within the Education Department could be cut by as much as $50 million, rolled back to levels last seen before Sept. 11, 2001. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect new developments.)
“There was no advance hint that it was on the target list,” Carl Herrin, senior partner at consulting firm Global Education Solutions, said about international education.
For the past decade, programs dealing with strategic languages and regions have enjoyed bipartisan support and steadily increasing federal dollars. Neither previous stopgap funding measures nor H.R. 1, the proposed Republican budget for the remainder of 2011, singled them out. But for these programs, and for other, smaller initiatives within the Education Department, the 2011 budget could herald a new era, as a wave of spending cuts and increased pressure to deal with deficits will force legislators to set strict priorities.
Programs in international and foreign language education are spread across several agencies, including the Defense Department, State Department and Education Department, and cuts were distributed unequally. Department of Defense funding for strategic language learning was left relatively unscathed, and money for the State Department’s exchange initiatives, which include many Fulbright foreign study programs, was cut 5.7 percent.
The biggest losses could come in the Education Department: if agency-level budget cuts lists on the House Appropriations Committee website are enacted, programs that emphasize foreign languages and area studies could lose up to 40 percent of their budgets.
“It would be really devastating,” said Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education. “A whole decade of strengthening these programs would be completely wiped out.”
Whether those cuts will actually occur is still unclear. Title VI programs, so called because of the provision of the Higher Education Act under which they fall, are not mentioned by name in the spending bill. In the end, the Education Department will decide which of its programs will lose money, international education advocates said.
The chart on the Appropriations Committee website listed a $50 million cut for international education and foreign language, along with cuts to many other agencies not mentioned by name in the legislation. But mandatory cuts in other areas specified in the legislation leave the department with few options.
“It remains to be seen how much flexibility they’re going to have to not cut Title VI for $50 million,” Kazanjian said. “They would have an ability to shift things around, to my knowledge. Hopefully they’ll do that in a way that won’t be so devastating to these small programs.”
Programs that fall under the Title VI umbrella include National Resource Centers, grants to universities for modern foreign language study; the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships; Language Resource Centers, which research teaching and learning of foreign languages; and centers for international business education and research, among others. Many emphasize languages and regions that are considered strategically important or are infrequently studied, Kazanjian said.
The Education Department also administers Fulbright grants for doctoral dissertations, faculty research, group projects and seminars abroad.
“If these programs disappeared, most of these courses and least commonly taught languages would certainly take a beating,” Kazanjian said. A majority of students who learn the least commonly taught languages -- including Pashto, spoken on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border -- do so through Title VI institutions, she said.
Title VI programs experienced a decade of growth after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks highlighted the need for experts on Middle Eastern language and culture, with increased funding supported by both political parties as well as the Bush administration. Still, in the scope of the federal budget, Title VI programs are "a small investment," said Victor Johnson, senior adviser for public policy with NAFSA: Association of International Educators. "If there’s going to be cuts, these programs that educate Americans about the world should be last in line, it seems to us, for cuts," he said.
But in the contentious, high-stakes negotiations that averted a government shutdown, they appear to have been a casualty to other priorities.
Negotiations that are pressed for time and focus on cutting “big-ticket items” leave less time or opportunity to debate smaller programs like Title VI, Herrin said. And pressure to cut across the board put focus on specific legislative priorities.
“The typical way somebody responds when a constellation of programs are called into question is to defend the top priority ones,” he said. “Clearly in higher education, the Pell [Grant] Program was among the top priorities.”
There is no indication that international programs weren’t a priority for the Obama administration, he said. Still, keeping Pell Grants at a $5,550 maximum meant that other programs had to absorb cuts instead.
With fights over increasing the debt ceiling (the amount the nation can borrow) and the 2012 budget looming, the 2011 allocations, as they stand right now, do not bode well for 2012 and beyond, Kazanjian said. The Obama administration's budget request included level funding for Title VI programs before the budget cut, but she said she does not know if that will hold.
“This may be a game changer,” she said. “The question would be, is it going to be possible in 2012, when they’re again going to be looking for budget cuts, for these programs to be restored? It doesn’t look promising at the moment.”