Crossposted from GOOD magazine.

“Almost no one is working on higher education overseas.” That’s what Conor Bohan, head of Haitian Education and Leadership Program, told me in his office last week. We met at the Clinton Global Initiative in September and bonded over this common interest.

Here’s the problem. The balance of power and wealth is shifting rapidly from industrial to postindustrial economies, and with it, the demand for a highly educated workforce. This is true around the world: a simple high school diploma is no more a guarantee of a living wage job in Haiti than it is in the US.

But most international education aid whether from governments, big foundations, or the World Bank, focuses, understandably, on the pressing need for basic literacy. What’s required is nothing less than a quantum leap for the higher education attainment rates in, say, sub-Saharan Africa (about 5 percent) approach those at the top of the heap (Canada and South Korea, above 50%).

Conor’s program, HELP, is trying to make a tiny difference in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. He started it when he was working in Haiti as a schoolteacher and one of his star students asked him for $30 to enroll in secretarial school. After questioning her he learned that her real dream was to become a doctor–and today she is.

HELP accepts only students with straight A’s through high school. They received 350 qualifying applications for 30 slots last year. It costs a total of about $5500 a year to send a student to Haiti’s  public university, or one of its Catholic or private institutions, and to provide them with funds for clothing, shelter, books, academic advising, and internships. HELP believes firmly in building up local capacity by sending students to college in-country, where the quality is said to be quite good–University of Miami president Donna Shalala has said,”The one institutional strength Haiti has had is its higher-education system.”

Graduates of HELP’s scholarship program increase their income from about $600 a year with just a high school diploma to about $14000 a year on average. That’s an incredible payoff, better than almost any social entrepreneurship program you could name. It seems like a good idea to me that they do it without creating debt for the students, unlike a microfinance student loan program called Vittana that has received a lot of attention. I’ve started talking to Conor about the possibility of connecting his students with academic advising, peer study groups, English classes, and mentorship opportunities over the Internet. If you have any ideas about this, get in touch. I also think sponsoring a HELP student would be an amazing fundraising project for a US college campus.

Leave a Reply