Getting the Best, Brightest, AND Poorest to School

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!

Photo from Generation Rwanda 2011-12 annual report. My thanks to the photographer who has asked to not be credited.

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


“Rosemary was one of the first students to fund part of her tuition through a Kiva loan.” (photo and caption from

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

Photo from Generation Rwanda 2011-12 annual report. My thanks to the photographer who has requested to not be credited by name.

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! 


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Education


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

10 Comments on “Getting the Best, Brightest, AND Poorest to School”

  1. Frank Williams
    October 31, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Simply an extraordinary story of what is possible for the education of children around the world.

    Cover story for Nov 2013 issue of WIRED:

    Summary: Paloma Bueno and her very poor classmates live beside a massive garbage dump in Matamoros, Mexico, ground zero for the Drug War, a place of very limited educational resources, broken homes, hunger, continuous drug related shoot outs and murders in an environmental disaster zone. Paloma attends Jose Urbina Lopez Primary School where, as a matter of course, 45% of fifth graders fail the national math competency test and 30%+ fail the national language competency test. The fifth grade teacher, Juarez Correa has taught the national curriculum for several years, as a bored teacher trying to engage bored students.

    In Aug 2011, Mr. Correa welcomed the new fifth grade class and told them that they have the one thing that makes them equal to any student on the planet – potential, and stated “So, what do you want to learn?” He then arranged the students into teams and, despite literally only having pictures of computers and other learning tools on the classroom walls, created a student led learning environment to celebrate creativity, exploration and natural competition – a microcosm of the Finnish model (Finland has the best educational outcomes in the world). With no formal training outside of traditional pedagogy models, and no particular outstanding professional skills, Mr. Correa became a coach and facilitator of student led learning teams.

    In June 2012, Paloma and her classmates took the national achievement test and the results were published, as usual, in Sept 2012. All the student’s scores had improved. In addition, from a garbage dump contiguous school in a drug war zone, 10 students had math scores in the 99.99th percentile, three students had language scores in the 99.99th percentile, and one student, Paloma, had the highest math score in the country. Fifteen of the approximately 30 students were in the top 300 students in the pool of 3,000,000 fifth graders in Mexico. The government has not embraced these results, and no particular attention has been given to Mr. Correa. Paloma did get to go to Mexico City and received a bike and a computer. As for the other world class performers, a couple of parents (or guardians) took their kids out for tacos.

    • October 31, 2013 at 10:08 am #

      Thanks for sharing that story Frank. It is always amazing to me to see the power of a good teacher. Its a good reminder to focus on the right things to drive learning.

  2. Joe
    October 31, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    I really appreciate your enthusiasm for the innovations to fund education. I am concerned about your quick sidelining of scalability, however, as well as the rash side stepping of the student loan crisis. These are THE issues, not meager splinters to be ignored. And doesn’t educating a veryinute elite create disparitities of wealth that contribute to higher GINI indices identified as precursors to social unrest and protest? My experiences with education in east Africa are that it’s just not great – same goes for much of the education in the US. So should a mediocre education be deemed a panacea for redressing social inequality when that same education’s cost drives people to be debt payers over community leaders?

    • October 31, 2013 at 10:22 am #


      Thanks for your comments. I don’t think I sidelined scalability – I certainly didn’t intend for that. What I tried to say is something like this: I like the potential in these models; I’m concerned that they may not be able to scale, but I’m excited that they are legitimate attempts to find a solution to the issue of inequitable access to higher education, and this is worth celebrating and talking about.

      I did side-step our student loan crisis. I don’t think that was rash; it’s just off topic. That is a situation unique to a place where the majority of high school graduates enroll in higher ed, where the demand has outstripped the supply and the costs have consequently grown to the point where it may no longer be an economically rational choice for many. This is not the situation in low-income countries where the issue of inequitable access is most pronounced and where most students (like all of them) aren’t funding their university education through student loans.

      I agree with you that educating only a small elite further exacerbates inequality – one more reason to be excited about organizations finding ways to get the smart but poor to school. As to the issue of education quality – both Kiva and Generation Rwanda have been very mindful of the quality issue. In the case of Kiva, they have carefully selected their education partners. In the case of GR, they are the providers and their results speak for themselves.

      Thanks again for reading and engaging.

      • Joe
        November 4, 2013 at 11:29 am #

        Thank you for the thoughtful response!

  3. October 31, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    woah! realy these guys from Rwanda generation, kiva,etc brought thankful resolution of limited education matters, i’ve been created an advocacy on WV youth web for reason of my heartbeat thinking the negative impact of limited education, beleive these looking those poorest in rural areas, cause of are these who missing capacity to pay university schools, something i got from developped countries is that unlimited education will be good way in peace buiding &Development for Africa continent, PEACE for you!!

    • October 31, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      Hi JeanClaude. Good to see you see you. Thanks for reading and commenting. It really is a heartbreak isn’t it? But, there are people that notice when youth of high potential are locked out of education opportunities. Another truth is that some youth will never be held back just for lack of education – I think some of you at YOMADO demonstrate this well. I look forward to talking with you again soon when I visit Rwanda at the end of Nov/beginning of Dec. Greetings to YOMADO!

  4. Alvine Sangang
    November 12, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    Hi Aaron. I knew I had to read this post. It took me a while to get around it but i finally did. I couldn’t agree more with you. I myself have benefited from that system (getting full funding for a PhD program). I think though within the US itself there is still a lot to do to address education disparities among various groups, at least there are policies, initiatives, etc…I am from Cameroon. I was born and raised there and came here for college. my parents paid for most of my undergrad (they were able to afford because I got an international student scholarship that enabled me to pay in state tuition at a university in Texas) but I got into a PhD program with full funding and stipend (currently in dissertation proposal phase). Back in Cameroon I would have never even dreamed that I would get to this level in my education (and I would say I am from lower middle class in the Cameroonian context). One of my dreams is to contribute as much as possible to the higher education sector in Africa, starting with Cameroon. I am writing my dissertation on the effectiveness of the higher education in Cameroon. I really think it will be critical for Africa to look to how the higher education sector can be leveraged to not only make effective changes in people’s lives at the micro-level but also to meet the country’s development needs on the macro-level.Many of these countries (Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda etc…) have plans to become emerging countries by x or y year (mostly past 2020) but I just wonder how exactly they intend to do so without a higher education system that is responsive to their respective countries’ social and economic challenges.

    • November 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm #


      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for your dreams and efforts to contribute to higher education in Africa. I hope that unlocking access for the economically poor is part of that.


  1. 10 Volunteer & Non-Profit Blogs You Should be Following - October 21, 2015

    […] Post to inspire you: Getting the Best, Brightest, and Poorest to School […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: