Tweaks to High-Tech Visas Revive NSF Scholarships

A popular federal scholarship program for low-income and disadvantaged undergraduates that was scheduled to end this year has won a reprieve, thanks to reforms in the process that allows foreign workers to hold high-tech U.S. jobs.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) began the Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Scholarships (CSEMS) program in 1999 after Congress imposed an application fee for skilled worker visas (H-1Bs), tripled the maximum number, and channeled a portion of the revenue to NSF ( Science, 7 April 2000, p. 40). The authority to collect that $1000 fee expired in 2003, however, leading NSF to make what would have been its last round of CSEMS grants earlier this year.

But now the program is ready for a comeback, thanks to a provision in the recently passed massive spending bill for 2005 that not only reinstates the H-1B fee but raises it to $1500. The same legislation increases NSF's share of the fee from 22% to 30% and raises the overall cap from 65,000 to 85,000. Under the new rules, NSF could reap as much as $38.3 million a year.

That won't happen until 2006, however, because this year's applications generated no revenue. (The 65,000 quota for 2005 was filled on 1 October, the first day of the fiscal year.) NSF's Duncan McBride says the agency likely won't hold a competition until next fall and will make its first round of new awards in the summer of 2006.

The pool of eligible institutions?those that normally qualify for NSF grants?remains the same under the new program, with community colleges receiving about 40% of the awards. But there are a few new twists. The maximum amount of the 2-year scholarship will triple, to $10,000 a year, and the areas of study that can be supported will be expanded to include more fields in which job demand is high, McBride says. "Some universities have had trouble recruiting students because of that ceiling," he says about increasing the size of the scholarship. He also welcomes the move to expand the program "into more high-tech disciplines such as biotechnology."

The continuation of the program is "fantastic news," says Scott Wolpert, associate dean in the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park, which has enrolled 60 scholarship students under a previous grant. The program helps students from low-income, minority backgrounds "break the downward spiral of high student debt leading to part-time employment, which leads to an increased risk of not graduating" he says.

Reposted with permission from Science News, 10 December 2004

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