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Background on the State Department’s Elimination of Funding

for the Mitchell Scholarship Program

February 11, 2014:  Why do some officials in the State Department continue to mislead Capitol Hill staffers about the Mitchell Scholarship Program?  After supporting the Mitchell for more than a decade, the State Department has decided to eliminate funding of the program.  If they thought their decision was defensible, they shouldn’t have to spin and mislead.

Why did Secretary Clinton eliminate funding for the Mitchell Scholarship in the first place?  And why has Secretary Kerry, who supported the Mitchell when he was in the Senate, not reversed this decision?

On what basis was the funding eliminated?  The answer seems to change regularly depending on which State Department official answers the question.  Here is a compilation of things that State Department officials have told us and Members of Congress:

  • We don’t care about Europe anymore.
  • Budgets are tight, and we have to make cuts.
  • Because students can go to Ireland on the Fulbright, the Mitchell duplicates our efforts.  Additionally, the Mitchell is only a one way program – it sends Americans to Ireland but not the reverse.
  • We are alone in funding the Mitchell.
  • We want to keep all of our money in the Fulbright because it’s fungible.
  • We gave you a year to find other funds.

“We don’t care about Europe anymore.”

Under the Clinton State Department, this was the first reason we were given for the elimination of our funding.  They made no bones about it and stated it that bluntly and repeatedly.  Anyone who knows anything about the State Department can confirm that “we don’t care about Europe anymore” was a constant mantra in the building.  State Department officials have told me and Hill staffers that they have “other geographic priorities.”

We are not alone in seeing this demotion of Europe as wrong-headed.  Who decided that “pivoting” to Asia had to come at the expense of Europe?  In our conversations with State Department officials, we have argued that even though their interest in Europe is declining, they should support the Mitchell because many of the Mitchell Scholars are working in priority areas for the State Department.  For example, several Mitchell Scholars now work at State, and most of them have Arabic skills.  Two others are currently in Qatar.  One is helping displaced people in Colombia.  Another works for an Irish charity in Nicaragua.  One works on family planning and HIV prevention in Kenya.  Another is working to eradicate malaria and another on greenhouse gases.  Others have served with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Every time I’ve told this to different officials at State, they raised their eyebrows as if to say, “Oh, we hadn’t considered that.”  But then they change the subject because this information muddies their narrative.  

“Budgets are tight, and we have to make cuts.”

State Department officials often blame Capitol Hill for their decision to cut our funding.  While there is something to that, we are talking about less than $500 thousand from the State Department’s $550 million budget dedicated for scholarships and exchanges.  With such a large scholarship budget, the State Department certainly has the ability to fund the Mitchell.  Within the State Department’s scholarship budget, funding for the Mitchell would be a rounding error.  They used the sequester as cover to eliminate totally.

“Because students can go to Ireland on the Fulbright, the Mitchell duplicates our efforts.” 

We have avoided an us-against-them scenario when it comes to the Fulbright, or any other scholarship program for that matter.  But as that is an argument that the State Department wishes to make, we have no choice but to address it.

When it comes to studying in Ireland and Northern Ireland, by any objective assessment, the Mitchell Scholarship is the most prestigious scholarship.  With all due respect to the Fulbright program, applicants aren’t choosing a Fulbright over a Rhodes, as they do with the Mitchell.  The Fulbright is a worldwide scholarship and may be the best option for Americans to pursue graduate studies in many countries – but that is not the case when it comes to the island of Ireland.

When we first created the Mitchell in 1998, I surveyed the scholarship landscape in Ireland.  What I found was that the Fulbright was mainly sending Irish students to the United States, but very few Americans were going to Ireland.  The Mitchell Scholarship plugged a hole and filled a niche, but was not duplicative.  Why in the intervening years, if choices had to be made, did the State Department decide to increase the number of Fulbright scholars going to Ireland from the United States?  They in fact duplicated the Mitchell. 

The Mitchell is also more valuable to the United States from the perspective of our foreign policy towards Ireland and Northern Ireland.  If you say “Fulbright,” people don’t associate the program specifically with Ireland and Northern Ireland because the Fulbright is global.  In contrast, the “Mitchell” means only one thing – scholarships to study in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  No one understands that better than the universities on the island. 

The Mitchell’s high profile in the U.S. university world is benefitting universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland with growing prestige, attention, and even paying students.  Within just a couple of years of the Mitchell’s launch, Trinity College Dublin saw a big jump in the number of applications from the United States for post-graduate study, and Trinity officials told us that they attributed the increase largely to the heightened profile from the Mitchell.  Three hundred people apply for a Mitchell annually, but only twelve can win.  We ask all applicants to check a box so that, if they don’t win the Mitchell, they give us their permission to pass on their details to universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Eighty-five percent of our applicants check that box.   University College Cork recently reported to us that they follow up with these applicants and are able to attract paying American students as a result.  While I’m sure the island would like to have both the Fulbright and the Mitchell, there is no question which program is more prestigious for the island.

“We are alone in funding the Mitchell.”

Even though the State Department knows that this statement is misleading, officials regularly repeat it expecting that Capitol Hill staffers won’t investigate.  The State Department had been providing annual support to the Mitchell of $485,000.  It is true that the State Department is the largest cash donor for the program, but we receive other significant support.  The Government of Northern Ireland contributes nearly $100,000 a year to the program.  The Irish legislature has passed legislation providing that Ireland will match donations that we raise up to 20 million euros for an endowment for the program. 

In addition to the cash donations that we collect, we also receive substantial non-cash contributions in the form of “cost sharing.”  For example, the universities in Ireland and Northern Ireland that partner with us waive tuition and provide housing to the scholars.  These non-cash donations from universities, as well as non-cash donations from other supporters, represent more than 50% of the scholarship program’s total annual cost.  About three years ago, a colleague compared our cost sharing with other scholarships funded by State, and we had greater cost sharing than most if not every other scholarship. 

The State Department is simply wrong – and even misleading – when they suggest that no one else is contributing to the Mitchell Scholarship. 

“We want to keep all of our money in the Fulbright because it’s fungible.”

Officials at the State Department have told me that one reason they value the Fulbright is because it offers them budgetary flexibility.  For example, if the President decides to prioritize scholarships to a particular country, the State Department can fund those scholarships by raiding the funds that had been previously allocated to other countries.  The problem with the Mitchell, in their view, is that once they allocate funds to the Mitchell, they can’t them back.  State Department officials have told me very directly that the Mitchell is a great program.  They recognize its prestige, and they know it’s not costly, but they just don’t care.

“We gave you a year to find other funds.”

We know that the State Department likes to suggest to Hill staffers that we agreed to the elimination of our funding.  This statement is a complete fiction and absurd on its face.  I complained to the State Department about this issue nearly a year ago and yet I’m still hearing that State Department officials continue to spread this falsehood on Capitol Hill. 

Our organization, the US-Ireland Alliance, is raising an endowment so that this prestigious scholarship, which is good for the United States and for the island of Ireland, goes on forever like the Rhodes.  We have been working diligently on the endowment’s fundraising, including with the assistance of Senator Mitchell, but this effort could take a number of years given the current economy.  As noted previously, the Irish Government will match all of our donations up to €20 million euros.  (According to our calculations, a $40 million endowment would be sufficient for the scholarship program to achieve financial independence.) 

Until we raise our endowment, we rely on annual contributions, and we believe that the State Department has a compelling interest in restoring funding to the program.  The Mitchell Scholarship supports the U.S Government's goal of promoting international exchanges, the Mitchell is by far the leading scholarship program sending Americans to the island of Ireland, and the program's talented graduates are contributing to America's national interests at home and abroad.  The price of all of these benefits is just a minuscule contribution from the State Department’s scholarship budget.  We hope that Secretary Kerry will see to it that funding is restored.