Colleges' Global Partnerships Get Temporary Reprieve From Budget Cuts

September 20, 2013

The U.S. Agency for International Development has reversed itself, saying it will not go through with drastic cuts in the budget of the group that runs its global higher-education partnerships.

As first reported by The Chronicle, the agency had informed the group, Higher Education for Development, by e-mail in August that its operating budget could be reduced by nearly 80 percent, to $1-million, as of October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.

Such a sudden and substantial decrease would have made it impossible for the group to administer some 41 active projects involving American and foreign colleges. It had begun to inform grantees that it would have to suspend all partnerships and close down.

But in a letter hand-delivered on Thursday afternoon to the presidents of the six higher-education associations who form Higher Education for Development's advisory board, Eric G. Postal, an assistant administrator at USAID, said the agency would not go forward with the reductions.

"I give you my assurance," he wrote, "that USAID will do everything possible to continue the partnerships to their scheduled end dates with minimal disruption to program activities."

Even so, Higher Education for Development's days may be numbered. The letter states that USAID plans to shut down the group after the current five-year cooperative agreement between it and the American Council on Education, which operates the group, concludes, at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Instead, the agency will work more directly with colleges on international development projects, Mr. Postal wrote.

USAID officials previously signaled that they would prefer to move in that direction.

Despite the news of Higher Education for Development's likely end date, the turnaround on immediate budget cuts came as a relief to its supporters. The group had been scrambling to try to find a way to continue the multiyear projects, which involve nearly 100 institutions in two dozen countries. Most of the projects—which often receive matching support from foundations, foreign governments, and the colleges themselves—were supposed to run into 2015.

"There are important details to be worked out, but right now it appears that USAID will fund all the current projects," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "We're in a much better place than we were 48 hours ago, and we appreciate USAID's willingness to work with us."

M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and a former USAID administrator, said he was pleased that the agency would honor its commitments. But he said it was crucial for USAID to put in place mechanisms to ensure that it can work directly with colleges on future projects.

USAID had cited continuing budgetary shortfalls as the reason for the proposed reduction in Higher Education for Development's administrative budget. While the agency had not proposed direct cuts in the roughly $50-million in grants the group oversees, the group had said it could not continue to run the projects if it were forced to absorb such a sizable reduction in funds.