Time Is more than money: Help youth get more return on their investment in college

College students standing in line

Growing up in my hometown of Fez in Morocco, my mother instilled in me the idea that becoming an engineer or doctor were my only two choices in life. Like most middle-class parents in Morocco, she thought this was the path to a decent job, respect in society, and even marriage. At the age of 17, I did her proud by winning acceptance into one of Morocco’s top public engineering schools, securing one of the mere 200 or so seats that were available for a few thousand applicants. My chemical engineering degree gave me a solid foundation, but I had no real passion for engineering. I eventually decided to quit engineering and specialize in finance and international development.

Almost three decades after I went to college, my eldest daughter was considering her options for higher education. As a family, we went through a thought process similar to that of my mother: What to study? Where to study? Is it worth it? But this time round, we kept our minds open to diverse career paths. We boiled the discussion down to two key questions: what is her passion? To what course of study would she willingly invest several years of her life? And what will her career path options be after she graduates?

More Families Are Investing in Tertiary Education

In my current job, I have the privilege of meeting educators, students, and parents in many emerging economies. I have observed that, like my mother, parents in all walks of life, regardless of culture, religion, or socio-economic background, ask these same questions that add up to one. What is the “return on investment” from pursuing post-secondary education?

Many emerging markets have increased the number of college-educated workers in their labor forces by more than 30 percent in the last ten years, compared with about a 40 percent rise in developed economies. Brazil, for instance, increased the share of its labor force with tertiary education by roughly 140 percent between 2000 and 2010. Our research forecasts that spending on education in emerging markets will rise by as much as 32 percent between 2015 and 2020 to over $500 billion. The new and aspiring middle-classes see post-secondary education as a route to better, higher-paying jobs.

Nonetheless, in places as diverse as Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, we see major skills shortages and unfilled jobs in the labor market, partially due to the absence of linkages between educators and employers, and between technical vocation providers and industry. All too often, curricula lack input from industry and contain limited applied knowledge.

The Arab world for example has the highest youth unemployment in the world—in excess of 27 percent. Even more alarming is that unemployment among graduates is close to 50 percent according to some analysts. What a loss for these economies and what a waste for the students (and their families) who have made enormous sacrifices to pursue the promise of a higher education degree!

Moving from a “Degree” Obsession to a Skills Culture

What advice can we impart to college hopefuls to help them make good choices? A critically important aspect is to remove the social stigma often associated with a two-year vocational diploma and to debunk the myth that any four-year university degree is worth significantly more. A four-year degree is not the only option available for people seeking post-secondary education. Two-year courses provide opportunities to enter the workforce earlier and with less debt. A profession like web designer, chef, specialized nurse, or lab technician can net them just as much as a job with an “average” engineering degree or working in the public sector.

And secondly, while I understand the premium that people place on getting into “top” schools, it can be a pretty lousy investment to borrow money or use family savings for an education that does not lead to gainful employment. Even if there are no tuition fees to pay, pursuing any degree can be a waste of years of a student’s life, if the content is irrelevant to what the labor market needs.

There are examples of educational institutions getting it right. For example, in Jordan, Luminus Education provides a spectrum of one-to-three year courses tailored for industry and commerce such as digital filmmaking, game design, and land surveying. Jordan, which has a 98 percent literacy rate, also has a 32 percent youth unemployment rate. More programs like Luminus could help reduce it.

Low-cost universities can offer real value for time and money. UNIMINUTO in Colombia, offers programs in computer sciences, business, engineering, and other fields to 120,000 students. Founded by a Catholic organization with an anti-poverty mission, it uses innovative practices to cut overheads. Pearl Academy, in India, trains students in design, fashion, and creative business, with a focus on internationalism, entrepreneurship and employability, while partnering with universities in Europe and Australia.

Policymakers endlessly debate what form tertiary education should take: public or private, for profit, or not for profit. All of these providers are needed and can complement each other in a way that contributes to a greater common good. However, this debate is irrelevant for students and their parents. Increasingly, parents and students are focused on the factors that really matter to their future and in making the right decision: quality, affordability, and job market relevance. Regulators and education policymakers should follow their lead and focus more on these issues as well.


About the Author
Salah-Eddine Kandri

Salah-Eddine Kandri

Salah-Eddine Kandri is global head of education for International Finance Corporation, and a member of the World Bank Group. Since 2014, he has led IFC’s investment program across all levels of education. He works closely with the World Bank Education Global Practice in addressing key developmental challenges education systems are facing in developing nations. Prior to that, Salah-Eddine was the regional manager for Consumer Services for covering Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa region (EMENA) based in Dubai.

Salah-Eddine joined IFC in 2006 as a senior investment officer in Washington, DC and moved to Dubai in 2009 to lead IFC’s program in the health and education sectors in the Arab region. Since early 2010, Salah-Eddine has guided the Education for Employment (E4E) Initiative for Arab youth and was co-lead for the report Education for Employment: Realizing Arab Youth Potential launched by IFC and the Islamic Development Bank in April 2011.

Prior to IFC, Salah-Eddine spent six years at the Islamic Development Bank Group in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in charge of the Infrastructure and ICT private sector division. Earlier in his career, he worked for three years at the Central Bank of Morocco focusing on Moroccan sovereign debt and on the development of local capital markets. Salah-Eddine is a Fulbright Scholar and holds an MBA and a MSc. in Finance from the University of Maryland College Park. He has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Ecole Nationale de l’Industrie Minérale, Rabat, Morocco.