USAID’s Higher Education Legacy: A Retrospective
USAID has a rich higher education (HE) portfolio spanning regions, sectors, and a range of activities. But did the United States government’s HE global engagement begin with USAID? What did the early years of the Agency’s HE portfolio look like? Higher Education: A Retrospective answers these questions and more. This report explores the Agency’s HE priorities and key activities during each decade from the 1960s to 2000s.
Below, we highlight key findings from the HE Retrospective.
U.S. engagement in HE predates the establishment of USAID in 1961. In the late 1940s, as part of the Marshall Plan, U.S. universities played a significant role in Europe’s recovery from World War II. Building on the success of these efforts, the U.S. expanded its development engagement globally when President Truman’s Point Four program for foreign policy was instituted into the International Technical Cooperation Act of 1949.
In the 1950s, U.S. universities were one of the earliest to make commitments to assist in delivering technical knowledge in the fields of agriculture, education, and public health. Agencies like the Mutual Security Agency, Foreign Operations Administration, and the International Cooperation Administration were predecessors to USAID.
The Sogang University in South Korea is an example of U.S. HE assistance through American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA) before USAID was established. The University, which opened in 1950 with the support from the Wisconsin Province of Jesuits, was instrumental in Korea’s rapid economic development.
1960s: Human and Institutional Capacity Building
In 1961, USAID was established as the lead foreign assistance agency when President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act into law. Although the responsibility for leading foreign assistance was formally transferred to USAID, other government entities, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, continued to offer development assistance. At the founding of the Agency, work was conducted in Africa, the Near East and South Asia, Latin America, and East Asia.
During the 1960s, USAID focused on building both the physical and human capacity of partner countries. The Agency’s HE priorities during this time were two-fold: building the capacity of new governments in countries that were transitioning to newly gained independence and establishing new higher education institutions and increasing the capacity of existing institutions through faculty training and scholarship support. For example, USAID invested significantly in Brazilian agricultural research during this time. The Agency supported undergraduate and graduate training and research programs at higher education institutions (HEIs) to directly benefit the development of the agriculture sector in Brazil.
For more information on specific regional and activity spotlights within each decade, read the RetrospectiveDownload Now
1970s: Access for Vulnerable Populations
With the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, development efforts across the Agency changed from a “top down” to a “basic needs” approach. Accordingly, the HE portfolio experienced a shift to providing large-scale scholarship programs with a focus on improving access to HE for vulnerable populations. For example, the Latin America Scholarship Program of American Universities (LASPAU) developed graduate-level training for faculty members of Latin American and Caribbean HEIs and government officials. The selected individuals had to show a commitment to community development and a focus on serving low-income communities.
The global food shortage during this time resulted in the need for developing higher yield, drought-resistant crops. As a result, USAID’s programming in Africa saw the most rapid expansion (from 8 to 28 Missions) with investments in African universities in the area of agricultural research.
1980s: Research, Development, Educational Media, and Technology
The Agency made significant shifts during the 1980s. The first was a shift in support from infrastructure, technical, and teacher training to research, development, and educational media and technology. USAID also began to focus on scholarships where almost every region had a program that offered foreign students the opportunity to study at U.S. institutions or a program that provided funding for them to pursue education in their home country. In Latin American and the Caribbean, USAID’s HE activities addressed a critical shortage of skilled workers within the labor force through scholarship programs such as the Caribbean and Latin American Scholarship Program II (CLASP), Cooperative Association of States for Scholars (CASS), and the Central American Scholarship Program (CASP). The Agency also introduced the Women in Development Policy during this time, creating a focus on increasing women's participation across all development sectors, including HE.
1990s: Democracy and Sustainable Development
As the Agency moved into a new decade, a focus shifted to globally promote democracy and sustainable development. The Agency added an operating unit that would eventually become today’s Europe and Eurasia Bureau to serve countries that USAID began supporting due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite lower levels of government aid spending and a pivot to more funding for basic education, many countries that had previously received HE funds graduated from assistance in the 1990s. In Europe/Eurasia and Latin America, USAID supported university partnerships, professional training, and exchange programs that focused on the economic transition from centrally-planned to market economies.
2000s: Information and Communication Technology
USAID’s HE activities had to adapt again after 9/11 and respond to the evolving challenges of conflict and rebuilding. There was a focus on providing HE opportunities to marginalized and vulnerable populations, including those who were displaced by crisis or conflict. With developments in information technology and through partnering with the private sector, USAID was able to better reach populations that might have previously been excluded from efforts. During this time, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region experienced significant growth in the youth population. USAID responded by linking HE to the needs of the labor market, with a focus on information and communication technology training. The Global Development Lab, USAID’s innovation hub established in 2014, also brought the Agency’s HE engagement in research partnerships and capacity building to a new level.
The Retrospective offers a powerful tribute to USAID’s long and rich higher education legacy. Curious about what’s in store for the future of higher education? Read this blog.