Mitchell scholarship body claims ‘misleading’, says Rhodes

Rhodes programme says no one has ever turned it down in favour of Mitchell

Trina Vargo, the head of the US-Ireland Alliance, who manages the Mitchell scholarship programme. Photograph by Matt Kavanagh

Trina Vargo, the head of the US-Ireland Alliance, who manages the Mitchell scholarship programme. Photograph by Matt Kavanagh


The head of the Rhodes scholarship programme has dismissed as “misleading” claims by the US-Ireland Alliance that a majority of students choose its scholarship instead.

The Mitchell scholarship, which is managed by Trina Vargo, the head of the US-Ireland Alliance, was established almost 20 years ago and named after Senator George Mitchell.

Each year, about 300 people apply – and up to 12 are selected – for an opportunity to study for a year at an Irish university under the programme, which is funded in part by the Department of Education.

The Rhodes scholarship programme was established in 1902 to give US and Commonwealth students the opportunity to study at Oxford. Widely known as one of the world’s leading scholarships, past recipients include former US president Bill Clinton and three Australian prime ministers.

In her recent book Shenanigans, Ms Vargo compares the two scholarships.

“The Mitchell has become one of the most desired scholarships for future American leaders,” she writes, “even though the prestigious Rhodes scholarship has been around a lot longer and was much better funded by an endowment from the person for whom it was named, applicants are turning down Rhodes interviews for the Mitchell.”


Speaking to The Irish Times, Elliot F Gerson, the head of the Rhodes scholarship programme in the United States, said the characterisation is misleading because the interviews for the two scholarships are held on the same weekend, in effect obliging candidates to choose one over another.

“It has become our experience that relatively few students who believe they have realistic chances to win a Rhodes scholarship apply in the same year for a Mitchell scholarship. That was not the case in the early years of the Mitchell scholarships, when those unsuccessful in the Rhodes competition could win a Mitchell scholarship, just as they today can win a Marshall scholarship or a Gates scholarship.”

He also said students selected for interview for the Mitchell scholarship have a “far higher chance of success than those invited to a Rhodes final interview the same weekend, so the choice to appear before the Mitchell committee is compelling mathematically.”

Mr Gerson also said no one has ever accepted a Mitchell scholarship and turned down a Rhodes scholarship. “Indeed, no one in several decades has turned down a Rhodes scholarship for any other purpose.”

The website of the US-Ireland Alliance advises prospective applicants that if they accept a final Mitchell interview, they must commit to accepting the scholarship if selected.

Following an audit in 2017, the Department of Education agreed to grant a three-year extension to the $485,000 annual funding provided by the Government to the programme.

In her recent book, Ms Vargo criticises recent cuts to the Mitchell scholarship programme by both the Irish and US governments.

Speaking during a visit to Washington last week, Minister for Education Joe McHugh said the Government had agreed to continue funding the programme for a further three years after the 2017 review. He said the Mitchell scholarship was a “very important programme” which is “symbolic of the work George Mitchell was involved in.”