The What, Why and How of USAID Higher Education Programs
The higher education sector is serving as an engine for economic growth and social change around the world. Through the development of relevant curricula, evidence-building research and increased community engagement, faculty, staff and students contribute to strengthening all sectors of the economy—from agriculture to energy, from business services to technology, from health to engineering. Higher education creates pathways to better health, economic growth, a sustainable environment, and peaceful, democratic societies.
But despite this proven role, questions abound. Here, we explore the what, why and how of higher education programming at USAID.
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What, Exactly, is Higher Education?
Higher education includes what is commonly understood as academic education, but also includes advanced vocational or professional education. Depending on the program, work in higher education can be viewed as:
- a target for capacity development support
- a stakeholder in local systems
- an implementing partner, and/or
- a key actor in achieving sector-specific objectives (e.g., addressing the global shortage of healthcare workers or improving teacher training).
A higher education institution is an organization that provides educational opportunities that build on secondary education, providing learning activities in specialized fields, often resulting in a degree or diploma. Institution types may include public or private universities, colleges, community colleges, research institutes, training institutes (including teacher training institutes), and more. While USAID often works with universities in host-countries, we also work with a wide-variety of other post-secondary institutions, such as technical training centers and teacher training institutes.
Why Invest in Higher Education?
Per the World Bank, higher education institutions and systems are vital to building a stronger society, ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity. Higher education institutions train the teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals that contribute knowledge and advanced skills—which drives economic growth and productivity—as well as basic competencies and research.
Higher education graduates earn an estimated 15.2 percent increase in earnings, as compared with 10 percent for primary and 7 percent for secondary education graduates. Graduates and their families also experience an increase in consumption efficiencies and savings rates, as well as reduced inequality of incomes and increased access to opportunities.
But higher education not only unlocks individual access to prosperity, these individual wage increases have tremendous ripple effects for society as well. Each additional year of education is associated with 18 percent higher GDP per capita.
And of course, stronger host country economies create opportunities across the global economy.
How USAID Supports Higher Education Programming
USAID invests in a variety of higher education activities across sectors to improve the quality, contributions and accessibility of higher education. USAID supports higher education programs that:
- Increase access to higher education, including post-secondary technical and vocational education and training, for underserved and the disadvantaged including women, persons with disabilities, and the most marginalized and vulnerable. This includes the provision of merit and need-based scholarships, internships and exchange programs that align with host country development goals. Program examples: Indonesia Graduate Training Tracer Study and Indonesia Program to Extend Scholarships to Achieve Sustainable Impacts.
- Strengthen access to professional development opportunities in the field of higher education, such as faculty development programs in technical disciplines and programs in higher education leadership. Program example: Colombia-US Human Rights Law School Partnership Program.
- Support tertiary education institutions in promoting youth employment, skills development and workforce readiness through demand-driven skills training and workforce preparedness; industry-led certification programs; private-public partnerships; and internship and job placement services.
- Improve the quality of higher education and research in support of country development priorities. USAID promotes public-private partnerships, including university partnerships and alliances, to deliver skills, science and innovations relevant to market needs. Program examples: Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development and Building University-Industry Learning and Development through Innovation and Technology (BUILD-IT) Alliance.
What’s more, USAID’s investments in higher education encompass a wide range of activities. For example, the Agency partners with host country and U.S. higher education institutions to connect science, technology and innovation to the demands and challenges of the knowledge-based economy. Two key USAID partnerships that strengthen research systems and develop new technologies are:
- The Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). Launched in 2012 as a partnership between USAID and seven universities to engage students, researchers, faculty and their partners in innovating scientific and technological approaches to the world’s most challenging development problems, HESN has progressed to include new networks for both short- and long-term research. HESN 2.0 is now a vibrant framework of cooperation between local actors, development professionals and academics.
- Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER), an international grants program, funds scientists and engineers in developing countries who work with U.S. researchers to address global development challenges while building research and capacity development.
USAID has a long history of providing training opportunities to develop human capital. In FY 2017, USAID supported undergraduate and graduate degree training for nearly 4,400 individuals at institutions around the world. In addition, more than 6,400 young people received short-term training.
Also in 2017, USAID supported the capacity building of nearly 400 institutions of higher education in 46 developing countries. These activities supported education programs and research aimed at country-specific development challenges.