A world of untapped potential
In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn make a compelling case that the emancipation of oppressed women around the globe is the central moral issue of our time, much as slavery was that of its time. But they go beyond saying that women and girls are victims in need of emancipation; they make a case that their empowerment will unlock half the world’s potential for social transformation and economic growth. Reversing the oppression of women wouldn’t just restore the world to a morally neutral space, it would unlock a powerful force for positive change and growth.
I have a similar way of thinking about higher education and the economic poor. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met a youth with such outstanding potential that I think, ‘this person could really make a difference in their community…in their nation.’ But, they probably won’t because they are too poor to go to college and so they won’t be equipped with the skills, knowledge, networks and credibility that higher education could give them. They might still do something awesome, but it’s a lot less likely. They’ll probably join the ranks of the underemployed and, after years of frustration, their youthful optimism will be extinguished. There is a sort of “Life in the Iron Mills” moral outrage in this – that such potential should be boxed out because one is born into poverty. But there is also this unbelievable potential that could be tapped – and its a wonder that it hasn’t been!
I think of my life and how I was raised in rural Montana to a mechanic father and stay-at-home mother who had two years of higher education between them. I never thought of my family as poor, but we were close to it and eventually we joined the ranks of the economically displaced, forced to leave Montana or face bankruptcy after the imploding logging industry made my father’s business no longer viable. I was smart and my parents wanted me to go to college, but we knew it was financially out of reach – that is without access to scholarships, grants, and/or school loans. The thing about living in the USA, is that it’s actually quite easy for a smart kid who has no money to go to university because there is an abundance of scholarships, grants, and loans available. Without making comment on our youth’s ability to repay their ballooning loans these days, the point I want to make is that my potential, and many like me, was not frustrated by a lack of access to higher education thanks to access to financing options. Access to education has tapped my potential to contribute to the social transformation and economic growth of my community, my nation, and my world. Hurray for me! But what about everybody else?
I think of a countries like Rwanda, Bolivia, Colombia, Mali, India and other places where I’ve spent a lot of time. I’ve met so many high potential youth whose poverty has foreclosed the possibility of higher education. What a missed opportunity for those nations that they have failed to equip the majority of their young people with an education to match their potential! What untapped sources of economic growth, social entrepreneurship, and political leadership lie dormant as a result? It is unfortunate that so few countries are able to adopt policies like subsidizing and guaranteeing loans for higher education. I would think that this would be an investment that would pay for itself many times over. Perhaps the lag between public money invested and the realization of economic growth and an enlarged tax base is too great. (?) Maybe there is a perception that the return on education isn’t that high. (?) At any rate, I have over the years tried to imagine what other solutions apart from national policy changes could be applied to this issue. By luck, in the past couple of months, I’ve been introduced to two creative and inspiring solutions to create pathways for the best and brightest AND the poorest to obtain a higher education.
Kiva: crowdsourcing school loans
Last month I was attending the Making Cents conference on Global Youth Economic Opportunities in Washington D.C. On the last day, I attended a session hosted by Kiva called “Financing Generation Y: Innovations in Start-up and Education Lending.” Saheba Sahni and Jessica Hansen were the presenters. I confess that I found the session a bit unremarkable until they announced that Kiva was about to go public with a new initiative to crowdsource education loans for university students. They had been quietly experimenting and building partnerships with universities in Colombia, Kenya, and South Africa. The example they gave involved pulling together 500 Kiva lenders willing to provide an 11-year low-interest loan to an exceptional young woman in Kenya who would otherwise be unable to finance her higher education.
You can get more information about this initiative at Kiva Labs – Access to Education. In summary, they are looking to provide low-income students with loans for tuition, supplies and living expenses with terms of 6 to 20 years. I think this is remarkable! Of course, it’s also quite limited in terms of practical scalability. Let’s keep in mind that it was only this month that Kiva hit the 1 million lenders milestone. While that is a pretty awesome number, if it takes an average of 500 of these lenders to send one student to school, then even if every single one of these lenders invests in an Access to Education loan, then they could still only send 2,000 students to school once every 6-20 years. Now, obviously, there are other reasons to be optimistic – Kiva is still growing like a welcomed weed, this kind of product could energize a new market segment (people like me for example), and there are lots of places where university costs are lower than the three countries they’ve started with.
Questions of scalability aside, I’m really excited about this and would like to commend Kiva for putting it out there like this. Way to be innovative and way to invite risky behavior for a good cause! (BTW, I think there are lots of people with high appetites for risk when it comes to high social impact investing/lending.)
Generation Rwanda: MOOC alchemy
A couple of weeks ago I was in Kigali meeting with some representatives at the new Generation Rwanda classrooms, including Jackson, a Career Development Officer and a remarkable young man who is also a recent graduate of the program. Here is the basic model as I understood it. They cherry pick the best and brightest among Rwanda’s poor (last year they had 4,000 applications from students in rural schools and orphanages across Rwanda for about 30 slots!). For content, they access free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). They combine this with low-cost classroom-based group work to digest the content in the MOOCs. They add in English language instruction, computer literacy, career development services, and entrepreneurship training. Finally, they put an actual diploma in the hands of their graduates by matching them with a competency-based Associates degree program from an American university. (They are currently working on a partnership to provide a competency-based Bachelors degree from an American university). The program is a four-year university education experience that is fully paid for by GR donors, including tuition, a monthly stipend, books, housing, mental health counseling, and wellness! They have a 95% graduation rate and 94% of graduates are employed within a year. These are absolutely incredible figures! And they are doing this for about $3,000 per year per student, with the goal of dropping this to $1,000.
So, again, the obvious question about impact here is scalability. They’ve got about 160 students right now and they are spending about $1 million this year as an organization. (I know, that works out to a lot more than $3K per student per year, but I haven’t asked for clarity on that one yet – so, let’s just take their word for it.) But, again, scalability be damned! This is exciting stuff! I’m positive that there is a lot more than a measly $1 million of donor money out there for this kind of development programming and results. Launch Generation Kenya, Generation Malawi, Generation Honduras, Generation X, Y, and Z and I’m sure this kind of thing could scale quite nicely.
Update Nov 6, 2013: The organization is actually called Kepler. Generation Rwanda has been incubating their idea for the past few years, but this year marks the first official pilot year.
What other innovations?
I’d really like to know what else others are doing in this area or what other ideas people have for making access to higher education a reality for the world’s poor. I believe that there is huge potential for social transformation and economic growth in helping them access higher education. As one who knows first hand what it means to be able to access a university education through grants, scholarships, and loans when it was otherwise financially impossible, I am really heartened to discover efforts to find creative scalable solutions. If you have any other examples to share, I’d love to hear them.
Update Nov 12, 2013: Can’t believe I had never heard of Vittana, based right here in Seattle! They apparently pioneered international crowd-funded loans for economically poor students back in 2008. Found about them from an add placed on Hulu-plus – how serendipitous!