Using Technology and Data Analysis to Improve Oversight of Foreign Influence in American Postsecondary Education
By Lars Schonander and Dan Lips
Federal law requires American colleges and universities to disclose foreign gifts and contracts to the Department of Education. But many institutions have not complied with the law. A bipartisan Senate investigation and a Department of Education review found that the widespread failure to comply has prevented Congress and the public from understanding how foreign governments and actors influence American higher education. As Congress considers reforming the law and the Department of Education works to improve transparency, our review of currently available datasets shows inconsistencies and other problems with how the Department is tracking and reporting these foreign contributions. We present specific policy and technical recommendations for improving public transparency about foreign influence in American higher education.
Since 1986, federal law has required American colleges and universities participating in federal financial aid programs to disclose foreign contracts or gifts totalling $250,000 million or more to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) through semiannual reporting. Recent investigations by the U.S. Senate and Department of Education have determined that many postsecondary institutions have not been complying with this law or appropriately disclosing foreign contracts and gifts. These investigations have also warned that foreign nations have been using financial contributions to influence American higher education, while simultaneously undermining American security.
In 2019, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) described foreign government spending on American schools as “effectively a black hole” due to colleges and universities’ failure to comply with the disclosure law and the Department of Education’s lax oversight. The bipartisan investigation examined the People’s Republic of China’s long-term effort to influence postsecondary education in the United States through the establishment of Confucius Institutes and other activities. The Senators found that schools had failed to comply with the 1986 law: “Nearly seventy percent of U.S. schools with a Confucius Institute that received more than $250,000 in one year failed to properly report that information to the Department of Education.”
The Department of Education’s Review of Section 117 Reporting Compliance
In response to the PSI investigation, the Department of Education initiated a review of its enforcement of the so-called Section 117 rule requiring the disclosure of foreign gifts and contracts (referring to the Section 117 of the Higher Education Act). The Education Department’s 2019 review included investigations of university compliance. An interim report on the investigation released in November 2019 found that “six investigated universities collectively failed to report in excess of $1.3 billion from foreign sources (including China, Qatar, and Russia) over the past seven years despite their clear legal duty to do so under Section 117.”
In 2020, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a report detailing the Department’s full review of Section 117 compliance, which included the following findings:
- The Department’s investigations of a dozen institutions’ compliance resulted in the “disclosure of $6.5 billion in previously unreported foreign money.”
- “[T]he filings received to date by the Department indicate the largest, wealthiest, and most sophisticated of America’s institutions of higher education have received nearly all foreign funds, receiving billions of dollars in assets using an assortment of related intermediaries, including functionally captive foundations, foreign operating units, and other structures.”
- “[T]he evidence suggests institutional decision-making is generally divorced from any sense of obligation to our taxpayers or concern for our American national interests, security, or values.”
- “[T]he evidence shows the industry has at once massively underreported while also anonymizing much of the money it did disclose, all to hide foreign sources (and, correspondingly, their influence on campus) from the Department and the public. Since 2012, institutions reported anonymous donations from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia totaling more than $1.14 billion.”
The Department of Education’s review concluded that, “[t]he facts we have discovered drive home the need for an integrated Federal approach to the national problems posed by the theft of intellectual property, espionage, propaganda, and foreign influence operations on U.S. campuses.”
Beyond these national security implications, foreign governments’ influence on college campuses also have implications for foreign students. When the Department of Education released a report summarizing its review in October 2020, ED’s event featured remarks from Vera Zhou, a University of Washington undergraduate student. Ms. Zhou explained that her personal experience highlighted how foreign contributions influence American colleges and undermine their values:
“Three years ago when visiting my father in China, I was detained by the Chinese government for accessing my homework online and then imprisoned in a Chinese re-education camp. While many in America advocated for my release from the Chinese “re-education camp”, my university’s fear of losing foreign funding illustrates a theme across U.S. universities and colleges: foreign donors can hold power over U.S. universities and influence actions.”
Ms. Zhou described how the University of Washington resisted requests to advocate for her release from detention. The school would not “get involved with pressuring the Chinese government because they were having a ‘multi-million deal’ with China,” according to her description of a call between a State Department official and a school representative.
Executive and Legislative Action to Improve Oversight of Foreign Contributions
The bipartisan Senate investigation and the Department of Education’s review have spurred executive and legislative action to address these problems.
For example, ED’s October 2020 report described several actions that the department was planning and undertaking to improve transparency. These actions included updated rules for foreign contract and gift disclosure (including a new “Foreign Gift and Contract Disclosure Form” that requires additional information), interagency collaboration with the Justice Department for enforcement, establishing accounting and audit best practices, encouraging third-party auditing, and providing updates to Congress.
In 2021, the Senate approved legislation sponsored by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who led the Senate PSI investigation, to modify Section 117 disclosure requirements for American colleges and universities. Specifically, Senator Portman’s legislation would lower “the reporting threshold for U.S. schools and universities receiving foreign gifts from $250,000 to $50,000 and authorize the Department of Education to punish schools that fail to properly report.” In addition to these changes, the measure would require more detailed information about the source of the foreign contributions. The legislation was incorporated into the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support and 68 votes. The bill is now pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Currently-Available Foreign Contribution Disclosure Data
As of January 2022, the Department of Education presents disclosed foreign contributions to US colleges and universities in several ways.
- A Current Searchable Dashboard of Data Reported Since 2020: ED’s “College and Foreign Gift Reporting” website provides a searchable database of foreign gifts and contracts that postsecondary institutions have reported after June 22, 2020 when the Department of Education established an only reporting portal. This dashboard shows “all foreign gifts and contracts reported between June 22, 2020 and October 5, 2021,” as of January 14, 2022.
- A Downloadable Excel Masterfile of Data from 1981 through 2021. The ED website provides a hyperlink to a downloadable Excel file with historical data, which includes information reported to the Department by colleges and universities from 1981 to the end of 2021. This historical dataset includes the date of the contribution, the receiving institution, and the amount of money gifted. However, this dataset does not typically have the entity or person making the contribution. Why this is the case is unclear.
- A Downloadable Dataset Showing Contributions from 2014 to 2020 Maintained by the Federal Student Aid office. The Federal Student Aid (FSA) office within the Department of Education also maintains a website with foreign contribution disclosure data. The FSA dataset includes contributions reported between January 2014 and June 30, 2020. Unlike the downloadable spreadsheet referenced above, the FSA dataset includes specific information about the source of contributed funds, including the name of the giving person or entity.
Current Technology and Data Analysis Limitations
Unfortunately, the Department of Education’s current website, searchable dashboard of recently reported contributions, and two publicly-accessible historical datasets (described above) suffer from several weaknesses that limit users’ ability to review and analyze foreign influence in American postsecondary education.
- ED’s searchable dashboard and multiple datasets are inconsistent and not aligned. The current searchable dashboard does not have all the historical data that the master file has or the data presented by the FSA office from 2014 to June 2020. In addition, the other two historical datasets published by ED are also inconsistent. Specifically, the downloadable Excel file available at the Federal Student Aid website is only about one-third of the size of the Excel file available at ED’s “College and Foreign Gift Reporting” website.
- ED’s current searchable dashboard does not allow users to effectively analyze or aggregate data. For example, users are not able to determine total grants or contracts disclosed by school, the number of contributions by originating foreign country, or the gifts made by a person or entity contributing. In addition, users cannot analyze historical trends using the current portal, since data before June 2020 is not included.
- ED’s multiple historical, downloadable datasets provided limited opportunities for analyzing trends and aggregating data. Since only raw data is available, a user must have sufficient technical and data science skills to manipulate the datasets to aggregate historical data and identify basic trends, such as the amount of contributions received by a college or university or the number or amount of contributions by foriegn country.
- ED has not published official data about the foreign gifts and contracts made to colleges and universities over time. Despite the longstanding disclosure requirement, ED has not published official statistics such as the number of contracts or gifts disclosed by institution, by country, by year, or by total over time.
- ED’s multiple datasets showing reported foreign contributions also suffer from extensive data quality issues, including inconsistently reported contribution dates, the absence of standardized reporting fields, and inconsistent contributor descriptions. While these problems may be impossible to correct at this point, ED should recognize how these limitations have hindered analysis in the past and ensure that they are corrected moving forward. The following are examples of specific data quality issues in the Department’s two historical datasets.
- Data quality issues in the historical database showing contributions from 1981 to 2021: In the largest dataset available for download on the dashboard website, there are quality issues with the date fields. Some gifts lack a “Contract Start Date” or “Contract End Date” or lack the “Receipt Date.” More than 17,800 rows lack a “Receipt Date,” presumably due to the college or university not providing that data. Similarly, nearly 25,000 rows lack a “Contract Start Date”. In other words, college or university disclosures in the past have often not included basic information about when a gift was made or when a contract started. These data quality issues prevent an accurate analysis of the number or amount of contributions made by year.
- Data quality issues in the Federal Student Aid office’s 2014 to 2020 database: The FSA’s dataset has more data than ED’s other historical database for certain points. For example, FSA’s dataset includes a description of the actual person or entity making the contributions. However, contributors are categorized in multiple ways, including “contracting party,” “individual,” or “donor.” These differences make analysis more difficult. In addition, spelling and standardization problems are prevalent. For example, the database includes multiple names for prominent corporations such as Bayer Corporation or Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. Similarly, Confucius Institutes are described in over ten different ways in the FSA database, not even including uppercase variations:
- Confucius Institute Headquarters
- HanBan/Confucius Institute
- Confucius Institute
- Confucius Inst. Hanban
- Hanban Confucius Institute
- Headquarters of Confucius Institute
- Confucius Inst. HQ of China
- Confucius Institute Hd of China
- Confucius Institute HQ of China
- Confucius Inst. Headquarters
- Hanban: Confucius Institute
- Hanban-Confucius Institute
- Confucius Institute- Hanban Headqua
- ED’s two historical datasets present different information in some cases, which raise questions about data integrity. Analyzing contributions disclosed in ED’s historical datasets reveals inconsistencies that may be a cause for concern. For example, the database with contributions reported for 2016 to use a single year as an example shows 22 contributions from individuals or entities from Bermuda, while the FSA’s dataset shows only 21 such contributions. While this is a small discrepancy that we noticed, it raises questions about data consistency that could hinder accurate historical analysis and aggregation if such problems are widespread.
- The database showing currently reported contributions is difficult to download from ED’s “College Foreign Gift Reporting” dashboard. While ED is attempting to make data reported since June 2020 publicly available for download, doing so may require technical capabilities that many users may not have. For example, at the the Department of Education online dashboard site, the download button for the search tool only downloads the data displayed, not the entire dataset. When one visits the site, the dashboard initially only shows 10 contributions out of more than 24,000. Therefore, a user must use alternative methods to download all of the data. (If you’re interested, here is how we did this: In the browser, there are developer tools that let people, for example, inspect the HTML of a given website. One of these tools, network requests, allows a user to inspect data coming to and from a given website. We discovered that the data was being queried by a specific URL. By sending requests programmatically to that URL, it was possible to query for the entire dataset of the table.) It should not require extensive work to download a dataset from a federal government website.
These data quality, inconsistency, and accessibility issues raise broader questions about the Department of Education’s approach to making foreign contribution disclosures available to the public, such as:
- Why does the Department of Education maintain multiple historical databases tracking disclosed foreign gifts and contributions to colleges and universities?
- Why is the current searchable dashboard based on the dataset which presents less detailed information?
- Does ED have more detailed historical information in its records (which may include the person or entity making contributions) that is not included in the publicly available datasets?
Recommendations for the Department of Education and Congress
Given national policymakers’ concerns about foreign influence in American postsecondary education and the growing interest in transparency, the Department of Education and Congress should take immediate steps to improve transparency about foreign contributions to American colleges and universities.
Specifically, ED should:
- Develop a better dashboard system for foreign contributions to colleges and universities so that the average end user does not have to be a data analyst to understand, analyze, and aggregate the data. Specifically, the online portal should be updated to allow for users searching the data to compile aggregated contributions amounts by institution, contributors, and country of origin. For example, users should be able to search and analyze how contributions received or made by institution, contributor, or country of origin over time.
- There are multiple ways this could be done. If ED does not want to build a bespoke system to do this, there are off the shelf options like Tableau or Looker or Alteryx. Or if the ED does not want to procure dashboard software, Excel could even be used to do this work. Pivot tables could be made from the data to create a downloadable spreadsheet for users to analyze. While such a tool on the ED’s website would be optimal, there are lower-tech solutions available to improve transparency.
- Merge the current and historical datasets to provide a comprehensive picture of foreign gifts and contracts disclosed by postsecondary institutions over time and to allow users to analyze trends and aggregate contributions by recipient and country of origin. For example, ED should merge and align the dataset with historical data from 1981 to 2021 with the FSA office’s more detailed database with contributions reported between 2014 and 2020. ED should also explain why these different databases have been maintained and address standardization and data quality issues.
- Provide a more transparent timeline for when disclosed contributions will be added to the Department’s databases and publicly reported. While postsecondary institutions are required to disclose these contributions twice a year, ED should clarify its timeline and process for making these disclosures publicly available and informing Congress and the public that it has done so. At the moment, the Department of Education does not appear to announce that disclosures have been updated other than by changing the language on its website.
For its part, Congress should use its legislative, overight, and appropriations powers to require the Department of Education to improve transparency:
- Congress should strengthen the disclosure rules and ED’s enforcement powers in a manner constituent with the bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate in 2020
- Congress should use oversight powers to request information from ED about its current systems for tracking and publishing of disclosed gifts and contracts and encourage these recommended changes.
- The Appropriations Committees should require the Department of Education to update its policies and systems for reporting foreign contribution disclosures and to report on its progress implementing these changes to improve public transparency and accountability.
For more than three decades, Congress and the Department of Education, under Republican and Democratic administrations, have failed to effectively enforce a law requiring colleges and universities to disclose foreign gifts and contracts. This failure of government oversight has undermined the nation’s security by allowing foreign nations to influence American higher education, as a bipartisan Senate investigation and ED review have found.
As Congress considers reforming the Section 117 disclosure requirements to improve transparency and accountability, the Department of Education has an opportunity and responsibility to improve its management of currently disclosed information and data. Improving its management of the information and data will give Congress and the public greater ability to analyze and understand how foreign actors are influencing American higher education.