The flawed logic of the Trump administration’s cuts to exchange programs

The Trump administration’s proposal to cut the State Department’s budget for educational and cultural exchange by 75% is bad. Its justification is even worse.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

The Trump administration’s FY 2019 includes a 74.9% cut to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).  The little known bureau runs multiple international educational and cultural exchange programs, including the Fulbright exchange and the International Visitors program.[1]  While the ECA’s seven programs could perhaps use some trimming, the proposed near-75% cut to the bureau and the logic behind it is misguided and flat-out wrong.

What makes the proposal strange is not just the cut but the timing.  Recently the Chinese government—the same China that the government’s national security document mentions as a rising rival to the U.S.—announced that it plans to host 500,000 international students by 2020.  Allegedly 80% of those will be supported by the Chinese state.  We’re cutting; China’s growing. What makes it worse is that these programs are very cheap relative to other programs that the U.S. is considering to challenge China’s growing influence, and draw from the U.S.’s enduring global prestige and soft power.

The central rationale laid out in the budget plan is that there are already plenty of people coming to the United States to study, so why—in an America First world—should U.S. taxpayers support rich kids coming to study in U.S. universities?  To quote the White House document: as “globalization has increased significantly since the start of people-to-people exchanges, students as well as other international visitors largely rely on personal and family as primary sources of funding and support.”  In other words, they don’t need us anymore.

If we just let the privileged send their children to enjoy and understand the U.S and our highly regarded educational system, then we will lose global prestige and soft power with segments of society the U.S. most needs to court.  As a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in which 60% of the students are foreign citizens, I can attest from the Fulbright students I have taught that U.S. taxpayers are not subsidizing the international elite to come here.  Quite the opposite.  My international Fulbright students have been the children of single mothers and the middle class—students who without U.S. support would never have been able to attend a U.S. university.

More important, with their diverse backgrounds, my students—who come from rural areas, non-elite universities in their home countries, and widely varied ethnic and racial backgrounds—have helped enrich the university and are important to the educational experience of their fellow U.S. students in the program.  If the U.S. were to only leave exchange programs to the rich, then U.S. universities and U.S. students would only be exposed to a very narrow slice of foreign countries (and their social structure), which would have a distorting effect on U.S. students’ exposure to those countries, along with the world views they come across in the classroom.

More important, though, is the damage that relying on the rich to send their children to the U.S. would have on U.S. power and influence in the world. Whether in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Latin America, the drive for U.S. soft power and influence depends on the perceptions of the regions’ middle and lower classes.  The upper classes, on whom the Trump administration’s new educational exchange strategy appears to depend, are a very narrow slice of those societies and often times are already well-plugged into U.S. society and culture.  (Heck, many of them already have condominiums in Manhattan and Miami.)  This is hardly the segment of society—especially in the developing world—the U.S. needs to convince.  Rather, it is the rest of these societies—groups that are often more prone to anti-U.S. rhetoric and rejection of globalization—that the U.S. needs to reach out to.  But under Trump’s proposed ECA cuts, these are the segments of global society that will be left behind.  If that were to happen, U.S. global influence and power and U.S. students and universities will suffer.

It’s true that later in the budget proposal, the White House document says that by cutting ECA’s budget so deeply, the Trump administration hopes to focus more on students in financial need. But from what I’ve personally experienced in my classrooms, the math doesn’t add up.  The implied assumption in the White House proposal is that only 25% of those students, professionals and professors currently coming to the U.S. on the taxpayer dime would qualify for financial need. If anything it’s the other way around.  In my experience, roughly 75% of my Fulbright students couldn’t have studied in the U.S. without the Fulbright and other U.S.-funded scholarships.

Educational exchange programs are one of the most important and effective tools of U.S. influence and power. More important they are one of the cheapest.  In the end, the proposed ECA cuts would only save the U.S. government $475 million. With a national deficit soaring toward $1 trillion, that’s nothing. Peanuts, but powerful peanuts.

[1] The State Department’s ECA bureau has seven distinct programs: Policy (including Cultural Heritage and Alumni Outreach), Academic Exchange Programs, Citizen Exchanges, English Language Programs, Global Education Programs, International Visitors, Private Sector Exchange.

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