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How might we reduce debt and increase employability after graduation?

Higher education could be reimagined and made more affordable by providing opportunities for students to partly finance their studies.

Photo of Jean-Marc Mercy
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Storytelling is one of the best ways to highlight a challenge and propose solutions. In this research phase of the challenge I want to share my personal story and an interview I had with a good friend at New York University a few weeks ago.

I want to make a point about the necessity to implement a strategy that reduces debt for students and at the same time increases employability in the long term. The strategy that I suggest stems from my personal experience and consists of investing in the potential for studenta to work and partly finance their education while gaining knowledge, skills and employability.

To illustrate my assumptions, here is my personal story. I started my first job a few months after I graduated from high school. My father had retired and had no income. My goal was to work in order to save enough money to further my higher education. So I worked for eight months, and was able to save some money to relocate to the capital city for my freshman year. After my first year at university, I had no money to pursue my studies. So I decided to find another  job. It was not easy because I did not have enough experience, however, someone believed in my potential and hired me. I signed my first employment contract, and decided to enrol in a distance learning program in human resource management, which I completed and graduated in 2007. I basically spent 70% of what I was earning towards my education while building a career. I did not get any loan nor scholarship. 

After graduation I got a promotion and focus on my job for three years or so. Then I enrolled into a long distance master's degree program at University of Leicester, in England. My work experience and undergraduate degree counted towards the credits to be accepted into the program.  Long story short, I am now completing my degree program this year and have more than ten years of experience at 32!

The reason why I am sharing this story is because I think it is very important to begin with the end in mind when it comes to designing solutions to make higher education more affordable. In my understanding of the U.S. context of higher education, students face many challenges after graduation: they have no guarantee that they will get a job that helps them pay the debt, and they do not have enough experience to be hired for a decent job.

I think more can be done by not only making education free, but also by putting in place mechanisms that provide students with the opportunity to work while studying in order to partly finance their education. The ripple effect of this strategy would be more profound on increased employability and decreased debt in the long run. For this to succeed, it will require joint effort between key stakeholders who pay for education, including students themselves, parents, employers, and the government. If implemented effectively, students who complete their degrees will have less amounts of loans to pay, more experience and skills, and on top of that, a university degree and the chance to land a job almost immediately!

While discussing with my good friend Demetri, a few ideas and assumptions came out, including the relevance of education and the return on investment on education. Expensive education does not guarantee decent work. Also, what is taught at school may not necessarily be what is demanded in the real world of work. Education could be reimagined by shortening the curriculum for some programs, for example, to make it more relevant to the labor market. Demetri had a different experience from mine.  Unlike me, his parents paid for his studies all the way through. Our interview questions revolved around the aspirations of youth and the type of education they want to have and what they want to do in life. We concluded that education should be made more affordable by involving stakeholders to contribute to the costs of education, which will have a higher return on investment. 

Those are my thoughts... I look forward to hearing from the OpenIDEO community!

Thank you!

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Imagine how your life could be easier after you complete your education debt-free and employable at the same time. It is a matter of policy design at government level, and implementation through different stakeholders including students, the public and private sectors, educators, employers and parents working together to make higher education more affordable.

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Photo of Jeffrey Law

Although there are already many stories like yours, you deliver a more direct punch to the real issue of higher education, "...begin with an end in mind". Bravo!