Foreign Influence in American Higher Education: The Case for Additional Transparency and Enforcement

By Lars Schönander and Dan Lips

Click here to download a PDF version of the paper.

Executive Summary

There is growing bipartisan recognition that American higher education is vulnerable to foreign influence and exploitation. During the 117th Congress, the House of Representatives and Senate passed legislation that would have strengthened Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which requires postsecondary institutions to disclose payments from foreign sources. The bills would have required institutions to disclose additional payments from foreign sources and authorized the Department of Education to impose penalties for noncompliance. But the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which President Biden signed into law in August, did not include language strengthening the Department of Education’s oversight of foreign payments to postsecondary institutions. 

Now, new data from the Department of Education offers insights into the state of foreign payments to higher education. In 2021, American postsecondary institutions reported $1.1 billion in payments from foreign sources. Since 1981, institutions have disclosed $40.2 billion, including $27.9 billion in contracts and $12.3 billion in gifts. Of that $40.2 billion, $27.0 billion have been paid since 2010.

As Lincoln Network reported in January, the Department of Education’s management of the foreign payment disclosure law has historically been lax, and its publicly available data is plagued with problems. To help improve public transparency, Lincoln Network has created an online dashboard that can serve as a “minimum viable product” example of how the Department of Education could publicly report these disclosures.

To establish real transparency and address potential malign foreign influence in American higher education, Congress should reform existing federal law to strengthen disclosure requirements and authorize the Department of Education to enforce compliance. Congress should also require the Department of Education to improve its management and reporting of disclosure data. Until Congress strengthens the existing federal disclosure rules and the Department of Education’s ability to enforce compliance, American higher education will remain vulnerable to foreign influence. 

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