In Next U.S. Budget, Outlook for International-Education Programs Is Gloomy

June 02, 2011

With U.S. lawmakers focused on decreasing government spending, administrators of American universities will need to fight simply to keep some federal international-education programs alive, said speakers at the annual meeting here of Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

"We want to limit the damage" to student and scholar exchanges and other higher-education programs, said Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange.

In the budget battles pending in Congress, he said, "some people are going to win, some people are going to lose."

The budget allocation for Fulbright scholarships and other academic activities run by the State Department would decline to between $502-million to $516-million from the current $598.8-million under plans proposed in the Republican-led the House of Representatives, said Mr. McCarry. With Democrats in the Senate and President Obama likely opposing such a move, he ultimately doesn't expect the cuts to be that steep. However, the numbers represent the low end of the budget discussions and are a sign of the tough political times.

Compared to other federal international-education efforts, however, the State Department programs have escaped relatively unscathed so far. In the budget deal for the remainder of the current fiscal year, they were reduced by about 6 percent. Programs authorized under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which include a variety of language courses and international studies, and under the Fulbright-Hays Act, which primarily pays for study abroad for doctoral and other graduate students, were slashed by 40 percent, or $50-million, and could face a dire future.

"I can't tell you that money will come back anytime soon," said Carl A. Herrin, senior partner at Global Education Solutions, about the Title VI funds.

Mr. Herrin painted a gloomy picture about the prospects for government-education programs at a time when the ballooning federal deficit is the central issue on Capitol Hill.

"Virtually all nondefense federal activities are under pressure to make real sustained long-term reductions," he said. To show the scope of the issue, he pointed out that the estimated deficit of $1.65-trillion for the current fiscal year could pay for all State Department educational and cultural programs for almost 2,600 years.

International education needs champions in the Senate and the House, he said, but unfortunately recent Congressional election losses or retirements have depleted the ranks of those who would usually take up the cause.

In Washington, "we don't have the rabbi or the priest to make the moral case," he said.

He did note that Sen. John McCain III, Republican of Arizona, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine, criticized cuts to international-education programs, calling them "short-sighted" in the face of upheaval in Arab world.

Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa, urged educators to foster new advocates for their issues by writing members of Congress and telling them about the work federal dollars are paying for on their campuses.

While budget allocations for State Department student and faculty exchanges grew after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the growth has "run its course for the foreseeable future," he said.

The projects financed by Title VI "are in a world of trouble, and some of them are going to close," he added. "We're not gong to be successful at defending every single program."

He encouraged universities to rethink how to pay for Title VI projects and what their mission is, saying they may be able to find more support in the Education Department and elsewhere in Washington if the projects are recast as a way to internationalize campuses more broadly.

"This is a time to reassess who we are and what we do," he said.

Editor's note (6/2, 4:25 p.m.): This article has been altered to more accurately reflect some speakers' comments.