It is no secret that the U.S. college education system is at the top of the leaderboard — not only in terms of quality but also when it comes to the price tag.
Students at the country’s top institutions finish their education saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt. Administrators across the country are grappling with budget and enrollment shortfalls. Underfunding is hitting historically black colleges and universities particularly hard, many of which face unique and systemic challenges when it comes to funding and enrollment.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fees at public institutions in 2020-2021 were 10% higher than in the previous decade — increasing from an average of $8,500 annually for a 4-year undergraduate degree to $9,400. At private non-profit institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, fees grew nearly 20% in that same period: up from $31,700 a year in the 2010s to now $37,600 a year. And that doesn’t even account for the ever-growing cost of living, which inevitably hits the poorest the hardest.
Simply put: higher education is getting more expensive and less accessible, particularly for the most vulnerable — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
If the US wants to continue producing the world’s best and brightest scientists, doctors, and innovators, it must ensure everyone has access to quality education, particularly in STEM. In this pursuit, the United States can take lessons from abroad.
To understand how higher education can be delivered cost-effectively and with a focus on concrete outcomes, look to Rwanda-based higher education institution Kepler.
Founded in 2013, Kepler educates African youth with the skills and competencies required to succeed in the world of work in the 21st century. Digital-first and with a thorough understanding of what it means to be disenfranchised, Kepler’s lean and realistic approach to education keeps costs down and education outcome-orientated — and it is seeing tremendous success, particularly for systemically excluded groups.
Kepler ensures that 50% of its student body comprises women, and 30% of Kepler’s students are from vulnerable communities — 25% of that group come from refugee camps.
With almost 5,000 students served in 2022, Kepler graduates earn 83% more than other graduates in their first jobs, and 90% of Kepler students are employed within six months of graduation.
Nathalie Munyampenda, Chief Executive Officer of Kepler, attributes much of this success to the institution’s practical and competency-based model.
“We believe, fundamentally, that higher education is changing,” she explained, “we’re trying to prepare students for the future and to be citizens of the world. They will be more than just workers – it’s not exploitative. They’re producing value for themselves and value for their community.”
Rather than traditional, lecture-based degrees, Kepler offers competency-based degrees, focusing on a “learning by doing” model.
“It isn’t about getting an A or an 80% – it’s really about gaining these competencies,” she says. “The big thing is that students acquire the skill to teach themselves.”
Kepler’s program consists of stacking soft, digital, and technical skills — subject matter expertise for a degree, combined with the citizenship and community focus required to operate in a dynamic 21st century workplace.
This approach, she says, is paying off. Employers come to Kepler to recruit their graduates, prioritizing the practical skills they’ve gained while studying.
“We have a very strong reputation in Rwanda. We don’t chase jobs like we used to; they come to us, Munyampenda describes. “They say: ‘I have 100 jobs from a global tech company. Can you find us these profiles?’”
And, critical to the U.S. conundrum, Kepler keeps the fees as low as possible.
“There’s much questioning in Rwanda, as in the U.S., the cost of the education versus the value of what you’re getting. If you’re hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, is it better to do a shorter education and be able to work? Is it worth it?” Munyampenda implores.
Part of her solution to keeping the cost of tuition at a reasonable price is crunching a four-year degree into three years.
Offering shorter programs isn’t a radical idea. The standard length of a full-time undergraduate degree in the UK is three years, and students there often complete their master’s degrees in just nine months —meaning lower tuition fees, less living costs without an income, and less time spent out of the labor market.
Kepler also offers certificate programs and leans into online programs that students can access from anywhere.
Munyampenda also advocates a different approach toward debt-servicing for tuition fees — one that much of the world has already adopted. In Rwanda’s Kepler and places like Germany, income-shared agreements are becoming the go-to financing tools for education.
Income-shared agreements are not traditional loans. Rather than basing financing on assets a student currently has, students are given funding based on their future earning potential. Low-income students are given a maximum amount of money for their entire degree and aren’t required to begin paying the loan back until their income hits a certain threshold. Even then, the amount due is based on a certain percentage of monthly income.
This approach opens the door for students who don’t have access to traditional loans and ensures their loans don’t trap them in poverty. If they lose their job, they stop paying. This type of lending provides the aspirational decision by students to attend university and invest in themselves does not come back to bite them later by preventing them from getting on the property ladder or starting a business.
Delivering quality education for less is challenging and requires changes in both attitudes and economic models. But good education — particularly in STEM subjects, which pay the most and are in many ways the most meritocratic of professions — is the single most crucial tool for improving social and economic mobility.
Ultimately, delivering quality education for less across the US is about more than just social justice or fairness. It is in the country’s best interest that its bright, creative, and ambitious young people, whoever they are and whatever their background, are encouraged to pursue higher education.