Making Education Accessible International Fellowships Fund

Since 2001, International Fellowships Program (IFP), the signature program of the International Fellowships Fund (IFF), has granted nearly 3,000 fellowships to members of marginalized groups in 22 developing countries to pursue post-graduate studies. The hope is that fellows will use their education to become leaders in their fields, furthering economic and social justice in their own countries and worldwide.

The International Fellowships Fund is supported solely by the Ford Foundation, which has pledged $355 million to IFF for IFP through 2014. The foundation chose to establish IFF as a separate organization with its own board of directors, closely affiliated with the Institute of International Education. “We looked at all the barriers to higher education that make it difficult for talented people from poor backgrounds to compete,” Dassin explained, “and then tried to eliminate them.” For example, program information is distributed in local languages, and candidates from remote areas are encouraged to apply. Alumni help recruit new cohorts of fellows from their own areas or ethnic groups. And eligibility requirements are specifically designed to accommodate diverse candidates: unlike more conventional programs, IFP has no age limit, offers English language training after selection (“as an exit benefit, rather than an entrance requirement”), and gives “fellows-elect” a year and plenty of assistance to get admitted to a graduate degree program.

In every country, IFP makes a special effort to recruit qualified women candidates by working with women’s associations, human rights organizations, and women leaders. The program allows grant recipients to study in their own regions or to undertake short “sandwich” programs overseas, an incentive for many women who prefer not to leave their families for long periods of study abroad. Just about one-half of the fellows are women. Two-thirds come from rural areas or small towns. Half of the fellows’ mothers or fathers never completed primary school, and over 90 percent are the first in their families to earn a university degree. Fully 98 percent of the program’s more than 1,300 alumni have finished their fellowships in good academic standing, and the vast majority have completed their degrees and returned to their home countries.

How has IFP built such a diverse and successful group? The key is decentralized implementation. Coordinated through a New York-based secretariat, IFP works with 20 partner organizations around the world, as well as provincial governments, universities, and Ford Foundation offices. Partner organizations identify groups typically excluded from graduate education (because of gender, ethnicity, language, tribal affiliation, physical disability, or other factors), figure out how to reach them, and manage the selection process. Independent selection committees interpret the three basic IFP criteria — academic achievement and potential, demonstrated leadership, and social commitment — according to the local context and culture.