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The Education Department is planning to change how it evaluates applicants’ native language skills for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program.

Education Department

The Education Department is extending the deadline and rethinking how it selects fellows for its competitive Fulbright-Hays doctoral research program following lawsuits and a federal order that blocks the agency from applying certain foreign language criteria to 2023 applicants.

Three applicants filed a lawsuit last year challenging the department’s rules for the doctoral program that penalize students whose native language is the same as what is spoken in the country where they want to conduct their research. They argued that the rules disadvantage U.S. students who have immigrant heritage and are unlawful.

A federal judge agreed, issuing an injunction last month that prevents the department from considering an applicant’s native language skills. Following that order, the department extended the 2023 application’s next deadline to April 28; applications were initially due April 11.

The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship is one of several programs that provide funding for current and prospective U.S. educators to participate in research overseas. The program is aimed at improving the study of modern foreign languages in the United States. The 90 fellows in fiscal year 2022 received an average of $37,504.

The department uses a 106-point scale to evaluate applicants. Veronica Gonzalez, one of the plaintiffs and a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, studying social ecology, received zero of 15 points in the section for foreign language proficiency because she grew up speaking Spanish. She planned to conduct her research in Mexico.

For the 2023 application cycle, the department said applicants could receive one point at most for proficiency in one or more languages other than English or the applicant’s native language. Gonzalez, who is applying for a fellowship again this year, argued in court filings that she would still face a penalty under the new point system and that an injunction was necessary.

“Without preliminary relief, Gonzalez is guaranteed to lose one point on her 2023 Fulbright-Hays Fellowship application for being a native Spanish speaker and, in a competitive field, one point could make the difference,” U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama wrote in an opinion.

Guaderrama’s opinion only focused on the injunction—not on the merits of the lawsuit—but he cast doubt more broadly on the department’s interpretation of the federal law that created the fellowship. The department argued in court filings that the fellowship is aimed at promoting learning a new language.

“The department reasonably determined that the challenged regulation is an appropriate mechanism to prioritize acquisition of language skills obtained through American schools—and that determination is entitled to deference,” the agency wrote in a brief.

Guaderrama wrote that the department’s reasoning was “dubious” given that the fellowship historically pays fellows an average of $35,000.

“With that, the court doubts the proposition that people are deciding to learn a new language early enough—so that they have sufficient proficiency in the language to be competitive for a fellowship—simply so they might get a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in graduate school,” he wrote.

Guaderrama concluded the department “cannot save the Foreign-Language Criterion.”

The department appears to agree. The agency last month proposed amending the regulations for the fellowship and another Fulbright-Hays program for faculty in order to allow applicants conducting research projects in any language other than English in which they are proficient to receive up to the full number of points available.

Department officials wrote in the proposed regulations that though the agency had “a reasonable basis for the prior version of this criterion,” the change would “better promote fairness in the application review process for native speakers of languages other than English.”

The department added removing the exception for native language skills would align the fellowship program with other, similar grant programs. The State Department’s Fulbright Scholars program requires an applicant’s language skills match the proposed host country and doesn’t take into account how those language skills were obtained.

Comments on those proposed regulations, which could go into effect for the 2024 applicants, are due April 20.

Sheng Li, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which brought the lawsuit, said in an interview that the department could resolve the lawsuit amicably by revising the regulations.

Li said the department’s current proposal “looks pretty good,” though he hasn’t taken a close look at the wording.

“We hope the department will finalize an appropriate rule, and we are happy to work with them to do that,” he said. “That’s probably the easiest way of resolving the case without further involvement in the courts.”

Li said other Fulbright-Hays fellowships managed by the department have similar rules in place regarding native languages, but he’s hoping the agency will reconsider those rules following the judge’s ruling.

“Now everyone should be on an even playing field, at least when it comes to their nationality, as Congress originally intended,” he said.

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