Adopted by the United Nations member states in September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically call for more scholarships as part of their vision for human progress. However, by describing scholarships in limited and technocratic language, and by focusing on funding availability as the sole indicator of success, the SDGs—formalized in a document entitled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—miss an important opportunity to link scholarships explicitly to the UN’s broader goals of eradicating poverty “in all its forms and dimensions” and reducing the “enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power” that characterize global society.1Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN General Assembly resolution 70/1 (United Nations, September 2015). The scholarships target in the SDGs fails to envision their potential use as a tool for redressing inequalities in access to higher education, not only for the poorest and most isolated countries, but also for marginalized populations within them.

SDG Goal No. 4 is a call to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before it, the SDG education targets focus on primary education and on eliminating gender disparities but place greater emphasis on secondary education, technical and vocational skills for youth and adults, and quality learning outcomes at all educational levels. Access to tertiary education (including university), conspicuously absent from the MDGs, is also mentioned. Consistent with the focus on technical and vocational skills, Goal No. 4.b includes an unprecedented call for more scholarships:

By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries.

Scholarships are seen as instrumental, allowing developing countries to build human capital in science and technology through higher education. However, the indicator for measuring progress on the scholarships target, as reported on the SDG’s official knowledge platform, is strictly financial: “the volume of official development assistance flows for scholarships by sector and type of study.” Progress on this indicator, as illustrated in the secretary-general’s May 11, 2017, report entitled Progress towards the SDGs, is not promising: “Official development assistance (ODA) for scholarships amounted to $1 billion in 2015, a decrease from $1.2 billion in 2014. Australia, France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland were the largest contributors.”

Evaluating scholarship outcomes

“Governments typically invest in scholarships as part of public diplomacy and also to build home country knowledge and skills in cutting-edge technical and scientific areas.”

The “state of the art” in scholarship evaluation sheds some light on the problem of how scholarships can contribute to broad sustainable development goals. Since around the year 2000, scholarships have emerged from relative obscurity as a simple funding mechanism and are now the subject of analysis and evaluation in their own right. Evaluation expert Matt Mawer explains that the increased attention to scholarship outcomes reflects expanded investment by “governments, supranational bodies, and foundations,” which support “many thousands” of international students for study abroad.2Matt Mawer, “Approaches to Analyzing the Outcomes of International Scholarship Programs for Higher Education,” Journal of Studies in International Education 21, no. 3 (January 2017): 230–245. Scholarship programs are found not only in Europe and North America but also in the Middle East, East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America. Governments typically invest in scholarships as part of public diplomacy and also to build home country knowledge and skills in cutting-edge technical and scientific areas. Although still outspent by governments, in recent years, private charitable organizations, including the Ford, MasterCard, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Open Society Foundations in the United States, have collectively invested billions of dollars in domestic and international scholarships. Their intended goals reflect the foundations’ social transformation aims: increasing access to higher education among low-income youth; training and empowering community leaders; and fostering civic engagement and political democracy in “closed” societies.

Despite the high level of investment, rigorous evaluation of scholarship outcomes is still in its infancy as an academic field. Scholarship administrators or consultants contracted by the implementing organizations, rather than independent academics, typically undertake evaluation studies. The studies tend to focus on operational topics such as the recipients’ satisfaction with the level of funding, appropriateness of university placements, and quality of nonacademic support services. Other common evaluation criteria include completion and repatriation rates, recipients’ postscholarship career trajectories, and continued links to the funding organization or other alumni. These measures primarily assess program effectiveness and efficiency and individual recipients’ short-term choices. In contrast, conclusively demonstrating graduates’ sustained impacts on communities and institutions requires long-term longitudinal studies with robust baseline data and creative methodologies that go beyond self-reports. Both are still rare in the field, reflecting a more general issue. A comprehensive study done in 2014 reviewed over 6,600 studies and concluded that the “extent and nature of the impact of tertiary education on development remains unclear.”3Department for International Development, 2014More Info →

Scholarships and social change

International Scholarships in Higher Education: Pathways to Social Change analyzes “…the multiple pathways from international scholarships to positive social change—broadly speaking, disruptions to the status quo that lead to more equitable, sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous communities.”4Palgrave Macmillan, 2017More Info → Case studies and analyses included in the book examine the role of international scholarship programs in opening these pathways, ranging from personal action undertaken by individual scholarship recipients (the standard, recognized route), to collective action organized by networks of scholarship holders and alumni, to institutional action taken by universities to transform their curriculum or admissions policies. The “international understanding pathway,” where scholarship programs operate as a powerful form of “soft diplomacy” and contribute to international cooperation, could yield significant progress in helping to forge the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development envisioned in the Agenda 2030. According to its UN signatories, the partnership should be “based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.”

“Advanced degree holders, in particular, may bring new perspectives or topics into their academic or policy-related research.”

Scholarships can also address the needs of the most marginalized social groups, by following the “widening access” pathway.5Dassin, Mawer, and Marsh, International Scholarships in Higher Education. Under this model, scholarship programs in themselves become a force for positive social change. They target students who otherwise would not have access to higher education in domestic, regional, or international settings. Alumni from such programs—for example, the Gates Millennial Scholars Program, the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, and the MasterCard Scholars Program—may take individual or collective actions that foster positive social change after completing their studies. Advanced degree holders, in particular, may bring new perspectives or topics into their academic or policy-related research. Regardless of the recipients’ subsequent careers and personal trajectories, though, the scholarship programs will have promoted greater equality by working against the forces of social exclusion and discrimination that restrict access to higher education for members of marginalized social groups.

The experience of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP) confirms this view. Operating from 2000 to 2013, IFP supported over 4,300 fellows to pursue graduate-level degrees in over 600 universities in nearly 50 countries. Representing 21 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as Russia, roughly 80 percent of fellows were first-generation university students, nearly 75 percent reported parental income below the national average for their countries, and almost 70 percent were born in rural areas or small towns. Fifty percent were women, and just below 60 percent had mothers whose highest level of education was primary school. These data indicate that the vast majority of fellows came from social groups facing serious obstacles in pursuing higher education. Yet, they performed well in highly competitive postgraduate programs: 96 percent of all fellows earned their graduate degrees and in excess of 80 percent returned to their home countries. According to the first report in a 10-year follow-up study of IFP conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE), IFP “has helped develop a global core of social justice leaders,” with 79 percent of alumni holding senior leadership positions in organizations and institutions, including universities.6Institute of International Education, 2016More Info → Others, such as the South African alum who pioneered an award-winning model for preschool education in a remote area of the Eastern Cape, are social innovators who create new solutions to perennial development challenges. Still others, including a senator and several county leaders in Kenya, are representing their communities in national and local politics.

Both effective targeting and robust evaluation frameworks for equity-based scholarships like IFP require better data collection and analysis. The World Bank and many national ministries produce information on the socioeconomic profile of sectors that are represented (and underrepresented) in higher education, particularly in regard to gender and regional origins. However, similar disaggregated data on international scholarship holders are scarce. Annual reports from IIE, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provide extensive figures on global student mobility (e.g., numbers of students from sending and receiving countries; sources of funding) but no information on income, race, ethnicity and gender, rural or urban origins, or parental educational levels. These factors are reliable indicators of recipients’ socioeconomic origins and status, as well as strong predictors of educational attainment. Having a more complete breakdown of these data would allow for better understanding of how scholarships could be targeted to counteract disadvantage and promote social mobility by increasing access to higher education, especially at the international level.

The specific geopolitical and economic context to which graduates return is also key to analyzing their poststudy trajectories and potential social impact. For example, persistent discrimination experienced by women or members of certain ethnic groups may limit their professional opportunities. In some cases, graduates may even be more employable abroad than at home. A small grants program for young scholars to conduct research on IFP’s extensive paper and digital records at Columbia University, initiated in 2016, is a promising example of what can be done to build new models and methodologies for social impact assessment based on local conditions. This dimension is almost entirely missing from the existing scholarship evaluation literature and should be encouraged.

Scholarships and global inequality

In “Inequality as a Barrier to Human Development,” a 2013 lecture at the Stockholm School of Economics, economist Kevin Watkins observes that high growth in developing countries is reducing the income gap among the world’s countries, but growing internal income disparities exercise a “counter-veiling” force. Watkins summarizes this trend as “global convergence with national divergence.” Failing to tackle inequality, he argues, will impede progress in “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere,” the top-listed SDG.

“Inequality also affects progress toward broader human development issues.”

Inequality also affects progress toward broader human development issues. Children and young people who lack access to quality primary and secondary education risk being locked out of well-paying jobs and opportunities for more advanced education. “Educational inequalities between and within countries,” Watkins writes, “are tomorrow’s inequalities in growth, income, employment and other social indicators.” Lack of access to education, especially for women and girls, has negative effects on reproductive health, child survival, and nutritional status. Conversely, access to education potentially enables individuals to exercise agency over a full range of choices and actions integral to their well-being—what philosopher Amartya Sen called “capabilities” and deemed as the foundation for all human development.7Anchor, 1999More Info →

This reflection takes us full circle to the question of how scholarships can contribute to sustainable development. The importance of reducing inequality cannot be overstated. Oxfam calculates that eight men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.8Deborah Hardoon, An Economy for the 99% (Oxfam, 2017). And not all the rich are in wealthy countries. According to the same Oxfam report, over the next 20 years, 500 people in India will bequeath $2.1 trillion to their heirs—a sum larger than the country’s GDP.

By burying scholarships as an obscure target under Education Goal 4, with the provision of technical education as its primary aim and the availability of funding as its sole indicator, the SDGs miss an important opportunity to redefine purely instrumental scholarships as powerful tools to reduce inequality between and within countries. However, this redefinition cannot occur without better data collection and analysis on the socioeconomic profile of scholarship holders and the economic, political, and social conditions in their home countries. To achieve this aim, greater participation by independent scholars from developing countries is needed in the design of both targeted programs and evaluation frameworks that explicitly link scholarships with social change outcomes.


Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN General Assembly resolution 70/1 (United Nations, September 2015).
Matt Mawer, “Approaches to Analyzing the Outcomes of International Scholarship Programs for Higher Education,” Journal of Studies in International Education 21, no. 3 (January 2017): 230–245.
Department for International Development, 2014More Info →
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017More Info →
Dassin, Mawer, and Marsh, International Scholarships in Higher Education.
Institute of International Education, 2016More Info →
Anchor, 1999More Info →
Deborah Hardoon, An Economy for the 99% (Oxfam, 2017).