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USAID Higher Education for Economic Growth

Strengthening El Salvador’s higher education sector to spur growth and productivity

A quality higher education system, vibrant private sector, and supportive government policy are all important elements of a strong and resilient economy. Too often, however, a lack of collaboration between these sectors creates inefficiencies and missed opportunities. By investing in and aligning these potent forces, countries such as El Salvador can improve innovation, transform their economies, and foster economic growth while preventing a “brain drain” of skilled workers.

Implemented by RTI International, the USAID Higher Education for Economic Growth project (2014–2019) sought to improve economic development in El Salvador by strengthening the higher education sector and creating alliances between universities, the private sector, and government institutions to develop demand-driven educational programs and research. The project improved the quality of human and institutional capacity in El Salvador’s higher education sector, promoted innovation and technological development in priority industrial sectors, established career development centers, and linked curricula to real world applications. It also supported the development of the country’s first national policy on higher education.

At the core of the project were four industry/higher education “clusters,” formal alliances between the private sector and universities that spurred collaboration. These clusters were focused on economic sectors with high growth potential: Information and Communications Technology (ICT); Energy and Energy Efficiency; Light Manufacturing; and Agro-Industry and Food Processing. Each cluster comprised of an industry association, a group of universities (including a lead anchor and participating associates), government representatives, and an advisory board of prominent business leaders, academics, and administrators.

Successfully linking higher education, the private sector, and government

In 2017, only three years into its five-year mandate, USAID Higher Education for Economic Growth achieved significant results. Among the highlights:

  • More than 400 faculty and staff from Salvadoran universities—a significant portion of the country’s leading business and science faculty—participated in specialized training in 2017, with an emphasis on industry-recognized, high-demand fields and 21st-century pedagogy.
  • Salvadoran universities, with the input of the private sector via the clusters, created or upgraded 16 degree programs to be more responsive to the needs of industry. Also, close coordination with the Ministry of Education’s Dirección Nacional de Educación Superior fast-tracked the approval of new or innovative degree programs in the ICT and Energy and Energy Efficiency clusters in record time.
  • Project-facilitated applied research initiatives improved the production efficiency of exports like coffee and augmenting energy generation using local waste. These innovations had a broad impact on the international competitiveness of Salvadoran industries. Importantly, each research initiative was required to engage with an industry partner that brought cash or in-kind leverage. Several universities also formed partnerships with U.S. universities, including Rutgers, the University of Florida, and Purdue University.
  • The project brought together leaders from the higher education sector and government in a highly participatory process to draft El Salvador’s first National Policy on Higher Education. 
  • Career development centers set up by the project created institutional change at universities, which were better equipped to provide their students valuable career counseling and linkages to jobs. More than 2,000 students (half of them female) participated in career-related workshops. Career-development centers set up by the project organized three employment fairs in which more than 1,300 students participated, and the Universidad Catolica de El Salvador (anchor university for the Agroindustry and Food Processing cluster) signed three agreements with local private-sector companies to support internships and other initiatives that include experiential and/or applied learning opportunities.
  • The project established the Network of Female Leaders in Higher Education, the first inter-institutional collaboration among universities and the Ministry of Education in El Salvador. This Network has garnered significant interest from universities and the media, and will encourage the contributions of women to science and technology while providing better conditions for young women to access higher education (mainly in STEM careers). 


Read more about this project's accomplishments in the final report.