Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

Running on Empty: International Education Funding Gets Deep Cuts

[President Barack Obama in Cairo, 2009] [President Barack Obama in Cairo, 2009]

Although education reform is a hallmark of the Obama presidency, we have just witnessed the largest cuts ever to the US Department of Education’s international education programs. In 2009, Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced Race to the Top. A $4.3 billion program, it is one of the largest and most expensive education programs in US history. A central goal of Race to the Top is to “prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy.” Apparently, study abroad and foreign language training isn’t deemed essential for such preparation. In recent days, stunned students and faculty across American universities learned that some of the most cherished international education programs will receive zero funding in FY 2011; others will be greatly diminished by huge budget cuts. The culprit isn’t just Congress, but the Obama administration itself.

On his first trip abroad as President in 2009, Obama met with students in Istanbul and told them, “I'd like to find new ways to connect young Americans to young people all around the world, by supporting opportunities to learn new languages, and serve and study, welcoming students from other countries to our shores. That's always been a critical part of how America engages the world. That's how my father, who was from Kenya, from Africa, came to the United States and eventually met my mother. ...Simple exchanges can break down walls between us, for when people come together and speak to one another and share a common experience, then their common humanity is revealed.” Well, there’s the Obama that makes speeches and then there’s the Obama who makes policy and negotiates budgets; sometimes the two seem like strangers.

Obama often talks about the value of education, admiring his mother’s career as a cultural anthropologist working in Indonesia. And yet, the US Department of Education’s international education programs have been cut by 50 million dollars—about 40% in FY 2011. Let’s put these savings into perspective. After all, there’s no denying that we are in the midst of a global financial crisis, that the US has amassed a huge deficit, that many federal programs are being cut. Some have suggested the Obama administration sacrificed international education in order to preserve the Pell Grant program. But that’s flawed logic. The entire savings as a result of virtually eviscerating these international education programs is $50 million. That won’t even pay for a single F-16 fighter jet—the brand new model comes in at $63 million.

This past April, with the looming threat of a government shutdown just hours away, Congress and the Obama administration struck a deal that cut $38 billion in federal spending. The House had passed HR1, the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, in February, signaling the kinds of programs that were on the chopping block. Those of us in higher education breathed a sigh of relief because the Department of Education’s (USED) international education and foreign language studies programs squeaked by, unscathed. The Obama administration had asked that Title VI and Fulbright-Hays be funded at 2010 levels—and while Congress went after Planned Parenthood and NPR—they left these programs alone. But in the back room wheeling and dealing that followed, a proposal to cut $50 million dollars from the Department of Education’s international programs made its way into the mix. And the Obama administration negotiators agreed to the cuts. The Secretary of Education then took the ax to these programs. Though he had thirty days after the budget deal was finalized to spread the pain around, he didn’t.

The Department of Education’s budget authority actually saw an increase, while the higher education program account was cut by 16%.  But international education programs took a hard hit, a 40% cut from which they may not easily recover. If we don’t see a turn around in the 2012 budget, there will be irreparable damage to these programs’ abilities to offer an international education to our students.

Obama Administration’s Double Talk on International Education

But we knew the Obama administration didn’t value these sorts of programs, right? These budget cuts are completely in line with the stated goals of this administration, aren’t they? Let me follow Jon Stewart’s model and bring out the old newsreels to demonstrate the overwhelming dissonance between what Obama and Arne Duncan have said and what has been done...

In June 2009, Obama spoke at Cairo University in what was billed as a major initiative to redirect US relations with Muslim countries. Obama promised, “On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities.” Well, in the coming academic year, some of the most important international exchange programs in the Department of Education have been cut entirely. For FY 2011, there is no (as in zero) federal funding for Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Awards; this saves US tax payers 5.8 million dollars. There is also no funding for Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Awards; this reduces the deficit by 1.7 million dollars. There’s more. Funding for all American Overseas Research Centers (AORC) for fiscal year 2011 has been slashed, the competition for 2011 awards cancelled. These centers provide critical support to scholars and students studying 16 countries/regions including many of the countries Obama highlighted in his major speech at the State Department on May 19—Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Africa, Palestine, Pakistan, and Yemen. The 2010 budget for all those centers combined was 1.197 million.

Oh, here’s Arne Duncan on March 3, 2011 giving a speech to the World Bank. “In a knowledge economy,” Arne said, “education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity.” And yet, a few weeks later, his staff slashed funding for programs intended to expand “the capacity of the business community to engage in international economic activities.” Duncan’s powerful speech that spring day called on all to “inspire students to take a bigger and deeper view of their civic obligations—not only to their countries of origin but to the betterment of the global community.” Such global civic engagement just became much harder for American college students since the Department of Education cancelled the FY2011 competition for the Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program.

Some programs were spared. FLAS and Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad and Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad funding had already been determined before these cuts, so they will be funded at 2010 levels. That means all $50 million will come out of the rest of Title VI and Fulbright Hays programs. Look for National Resource Center (NRC) budgets to be cut drastically. These are the 127 NRCs at universities across the country—from Maine, to Kansas, to Washington—that support language and area studies teaching. They make it possible for American students to learn Pashto, Urdu, Arabic, Chinese; to understand about the world beyond our borders. In May 2010, Arne Duncan spoke to the Council of Foreign Relations, highlighting “the need to increase the foreign language fluency and cultural awareness of our students.” This May, we witnessed the largest cuts ever to the most important programs that teach our university students foreign languages and area studies.

From Sputnik to 9/11: National Security and International Education

The roots of the US Education Department’s (USED) Title VI program are to be found in the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). According to the USED, “The Cold War stimulated the first example of comprehensive Federal education legislation, when in 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. To help ensure that highly trained individuals would be available to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields, the NDEA included support for loans to college students, the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools, graduate fellowships, foreign language and area studies, and vocational-technical training.”

The mid-century origins of the program are reflected in the division of world regions and its emphasis on national security. However, alongside this “duck and cover” tone, Title VI also absorbed Senator Fulbright’s worldview when in 1961, the Fulbright Hays Act was passed. Also known as the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, the bill emphasized peaceful co-existence through international exchange programs, even if its programs were often tied into US national security agencies. The bill asserted: “The purpose of this chapter is to enable the Government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange; to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating the educational and cultural interests, developments, and achievements of the people of the United States and other nations, and the contributions being made toward a peaceful and more fruitful life for people throughout the world; to promote international cooperation for educational and cultural advancement; and thus to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.”

After 9/11, various individuals and political groups targeted Title VI programs as being biased against the Bush administration’s foreign policy goals. They called for the dismantling of the program or the creation of an advisory board appointed by the US President that would oversee it. Their success would have meant that a political appointee of the US president could control curricular, funding, and programming decisions in universities across the country—an unprecedented intrusion of academic freedom.

This led to an extended and highly contentious legislative battle over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The Coalition for International Education—that includes organizations like MESA, AAA, AHA, SSRC, and MLA—was a critical force in this struggle. Miriam Kazanjian plays a key role as a liaison between the Coalition and members of Congress, helping to better inform them of the importance of international education. In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences conducted an exhaustive study of USED’s international education programs. Their report concluded, “Title VI/Fulbright-Hays serve as our nation’s foundational programs for building global competence.” After an intense six-year struggle, the bill was finally reauthorized in summer 2008. Title VI programs were reauthorized intact for 6 years.  The authorization levels are set at "such sums as may be necessary."

Some of Title VI and Fulbright’s strongest champions, Senators Kennedy and Dodd and Congressman Obey are no longer in Congress. With no strong support from the Obama administration either, the future for international education programs looks bleak.

Why does this matter?

When I was a FLAS recipient as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, my Arabic instructor taught me a proverb: lisan al-jadid, insan al-jadid. When you learn a new language, you become a new person. Thomas Friedman couldn’t be more wrong: the world is hardly flat. It’s filled with peaks and valleys of complexity that Americans cannot begin to understand if our students are denied the opportunity of an international education.

“These programs are vital to helping American leaders and educators learn more about the rest of the world,” said Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council and University Professor at NYU. “If they are cut it means Americans and American policy will be less well informed—and both America and the world will suffer.”

Some progressives might argue that it’s perhaps for the best that these programs are cut—given that they have always been perceived as pipelines for national security purposes. In fact, one of the struggles in recent legislative battles was to shift the emphasis to national interest and to keep this funding free of required government service. That is, it was argued with some success that it was in the national interest that these programs educate future journalists, museum curators, teachers, and business people—not just embassy staffers and CIA interrogators. While an estimated 50% of the graduates of these programs go on to careers in higher education, the rest span a range of careers—in the US government, the US military, corporations, NGOs, media outlets, museums.

And while we are seeing a 40% cut to international education programs in the US Department of Education, similar international education programs in the Department of Defense received no cuts and the programs in the State Department received a modest 5.7% cut. If this trend continues, Defense and State will take the central role in training our students in foreign languages and area studies. This shift could lead to a generation of embedded students and faculty.

Those with more conservative political inclinations sometimes dismiss these programs as supporting trivial intellectual pursuits, arguing that the US cannot afford the luxury of knowledge for knowledge’s sake while it is at war. Think again. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General John Abizaid are products of these very international education programs that are now threatened with extinction.

“Without Title VI support, most universities would not support area studies centers,” explained Michael D. Kennedy who from 1999-2004 was the University of Michigan’s first Vice Provost of International Affairs, overseeing six National Resource Centers (NRCs); for six years, he directed Michigan’s Center for Russian and East European Studies. “Without these centers, global and international studies would proceed too easily with English as the medium of learning and American sensibilities as the source for questions. By grounding the historical, cultural, and institutional concerns of other world regions in the American research university through area studies, ethnocentric excesses can be mitigated, and engaging the world as it is, rather than as Americans wish it to be, has a chance.”

In recent months, New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid covered the Arab Spring from Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. A two time Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of the war in Iraq, Shadid learned Arabic as a college student through programs supported by USED’s international education programs. Another NYT reporter Ian Urbina, who’s covered major national stories like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the mining disasters in West Virginia, was a Fulbright-Hays awardee as a student. International education experience heightens one’s awareness of national issues as well.

As the AP’s Middle East Regional Enterprise Editor, Lee Keath has covered wars and uprising across the Arab world; recently, he reported on Ayman al-Zawahri, the likely successor to Bin Laden as leader of al-Qaida. Keath also achieved fluency in Arabic as a student through programs funded by USED’s international programs. “Learning Arabic was pretty much key to my becoming a journalist,” Keath wrote. “I couldn't operate without it in the Middle East. It allows me to interact more directly with people, obviously, without need for a translator, but it also gives me a way to explore the broader culture, through the media, television shows, movies, music and novels. That sort of knowledge infuses my reporting and the help I give to other reporters as an editor.”

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University observed, “The annual budget for all congressional appropriations for international education under Title VI, including FLAS grants, budgets for National Resource Centers, and Fulbright Hays fellowships come to less than the $350 million cost of a single F-22 Raptor. This is an aircraft that was obsolete when it came into service after the end of the cold war, as it was designed to achieve ‘air superiority over the Soviet air force.’ It has never flown a combat mission. This gives a sense of how grotesquely misplaced are the priorities of Congress. A 40% cut in these important programs will mean students will learn fewer foreign languages and will learn them less well, and graduate students and scholars will have less of a chance to learn about foreign cultures. With these short-sighted cuts, Congress is helping to keep the United States ignorant of the world, which cannot be a good thing in the 21st century.”

What is to be done?

A charitable view of this conundrum is that President Obama and Arne Duncan didn’t realize that these important programs were being cut. After all, these cuts account for such a tiny portion of the federal budget, a drop in the bucket compared to the huge price tag of Race to the Top, that they might have been pushed through by mid-level political appointees without them even knowing.

But President Obama should know that today, there may well be a young student in Kansas yearning to go to Indonesia, learn the language, and work on international development projects—as his beloved mother did. He just made it so much harder for American students to achieve such dreams.

Those of us who care about international education must remain vigilant. Those of us who have benefitted directly from these programs need to give back so that others can follow in our footsteps. We must ensure that the 2012 budget restores funding to these critical programs:

1) Write to Obama and Duncan:

The most effective notes will come from those who have benefitted from these international education programs, describing how the education they received has made an impact on their careers.... and from those who are in school now who see the lack of funding as impeding their career goals.

You can send an email to Arne Duncan at You can send a message to the White House at:


2) Write to your Senators and ask that they support these programs in the 2012 budget debates. It’s time to plan ahead... Consider also writing to Tom Harkin (chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education) and to Senator Daniel Inouye (Chair of the Committee on Appropriations).


3) Support MESA. If your membership has lapsed, renew it. MESA’s staff and board play an important role in advocating for these programs on a regular basis.

Latest posts in Politics:

4 comments for "Running on Empty: International Education Funding Gets Deep Cuts"


Um I'm not sure if you know this but there are not too many young Americans who have such dreams of going to Indonesia or elsewhere to work on development projects. There are definitely dreams of money but international travel is typically exclusive to those who teach English etc.

Cuts must be made so [international programs must] work with these cuts and find alternative means.

M wrote on May 26, 2011 at 08:47 PM

Darling, You read Jadaliyya, right? A significant number its editors and authors received their education in programs supported by these grants...There are actually hundreds of American students who ae desperately upset they won't be able to do research abroad because of these cuts....

Shiva Balaghi wrote on May 27, 2011 at 09:56 AM

Cuts must be made? Tax the filthy rich financial capitalists not the workers. If you insist on cuts, cut defense spending to support education.

Jeri wrote on May 27, 2011 at 11:54 AM

There's also another factor: the overfocus on the STEM fields (science, tech, engineering, math) at the expense of anything that doesn't serve as immediately useful to the economy (or more precisely the needs of capital) ie humanities and the social science which cannot be monetised as easily or quickly.

Monkey Smashes Heaven wrote on May 28, 2011 at 04:55 AM

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Critical Readings in Political Economy: 1967


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T