Mira Maier is redefining Germany’s educational funding landscape by bringing transparency into the sector, making existing offers more efficient and opening new targeted funds and opportunities, in order to create a more robust system. This allows all people who are eligible to start and pursue a university degree to actually do so – a key to creating equal opportunities in education.
Die neue Idee
Mira Maier works towards a society – in Germany and beyond – in which no one is kept from pursuing the education he or she desires based on the lack of financial resources. Through her institution “Initiative für transparente Studienförderung (Initiative for transparent study-support – ItS)” she brings much needed transparency into the field and supports stakeholders in using existing offers of financial support. She also works with key partners to mobilize support for target groups whose needs are not yet met and creates standards and platforms, which lower the entry barriers of newcomers to the market of education support.
Mira uses a multi-pronged approach. She began by creating Germany’s first comprehensive scholarship matching system “myStipendium.de” that she planned on scaling on an EU-wide level in late 2014. She then built a supporting partner system with high schools and universities to improve their financial aid counseling. Mira expanded her efforts by creating new scholarships with partners. Working with universities and schools, foundations and other funders, she has already started programs for two student groups: handicapped students and migrants, who are underrepresented on university campuses and underserved by the scholarship system. Simultaneously, she attracts new stakeholders to the field to become scholarship providers themselves, thus enlarging the market and creating new structures for financial aid. She is also working to raise public awareness for the unmet need for scholarship assistance as well as on the underutilization of available resources.
Through the above, Mira is challenging the common perception in Germany and many parts of Europe that scholarships should be reserved for a small minority of extraordinary achievers with significant needs and unique abilities.
Lack of financial resources is the main reason for young people to forego attending university or to drop out. Even in a largely tuition-free environment, the costs of pursuing higher education are prohibitive in a country with limited financial aid from government and private sources. Existing government programs only reach 30% of the student population and for many of them the aid is not sufficient. There is only a limited number of university-based or private financial assistance.
One root cause of this situation is the lack of information given to students and their families. In a survey, 75% of all high school graduates feel a lack of information concerning scholarships. Many scholarship programs are poorly marketed and little known. 90% of all students applying for scholarships do so for only 1% of the available programs. Of the existing 6,000 scholarship programs in Germany, 20% are not paid out today because of a lack of applicants. This is partly due to the high cost of setting up and marketing scholarship programs properly. Many scholarships are granted by small foundations or individuals that are already overwhelmed by the administrative burden that comes with maintaining a program. Moreover, many companies and institutions would like to offer scholarships, but refrain from it due to the high initiating costs for newcomers to the field for orientation, set up, administration, etc.
Beyond the lack of market knowledge, the perception towards scholarships is that they are only for the very intelligent or the underprivileged. The widespread misperceptions have led to a situation where even among German high school graduates with very good or excellent grades, only one in eight students consider applying for a scholarship. Additionally, scholarship-receivers from non-academic and migrant backgrounds are underrepresented, as are students with disabilities and chronic diseases.
Mira’s strategy is improving the accessibility and utilization of existing scholarships, while expanding the pool of funding available. She does so through creative partnerships with existing educational institutions, foundations, businesses and governments and building a new infrastructure that simplifies the system.
Started in 2011, Mira’s scholarship search engine “myStipendium.de,” creates transparency and access within the existing programs. It is by far the most comprehensive and intelligent scholarship search engine in Germany, covering scholarship programs for secondary and higher education as well as PhD programs. With about 200,000 registered users, the web service supports almost 80,000 unique visitors a month.
Each scholarship is categorized using 34 criteria, from subject and age to the level of social engagement expected by applicants. A sophisticated algorithm matches these characteristics with the profiles entered by users. The results pages feature additional information and guidelines supporting users with their application process. In addition, the website offers holistic information on study financing, saving, tips on application processes as well as on maintaining stipends once granted as well as a forum for users. This way is becomes a one-stop-platform for pupils and students, who want to receive an orientation and find stipends matching their needs.
Mira has understood that the online service has to be combined with offline activities in order to reach as many students as possible. She partners with universities and many high schools in Germany to distribute information material around scholarships, to support students in application processes and to share best practices. Those partnering universities generally actively advertise the platform in counseling sessions, in lectures and on campus. She has also formed partnerships with other citizen sector organizations (including those of other Ashoka Fellows) that reach out to schoolchildren, especially those from migrant and disadvantaged backgrounds, in order to inform them of opportunities.
Mira has recognized that some target groups are especially underrepresented within the scholarships, such as students with disabilities. To address these systemic inequalities, she mobilized many partners and is developed a specialized search engine for disabled students with more than 1,600 funding opportunities for disabled students, collaborating with disability representatives from more than 60 universities and around 100 disabled students. The platform is available since late 2014. Beyond these offers for grant-making institutions to promote scholarships as a whole and for selected special targeted groups, Mira develops different ways to radically simplify the establishment of new scholarship programs in order to broaden the field. She works to standardize processes and to develop criteria, templates and draft contracts, allowing new stakeholders - those who wish to provide scholarships - to enter the field easily and effectively.
Mira has identified specific engagement strategies as she expands the pool of financial assistance. Scholarships are generally founded together with partners such (1) as companies in rural areas as a way to attract talent for their businesses, (2) companies who would like to support students in the context of their CSR engagement, (3) wealthy people who would like to support students with similar curriculum vitaes as themselves, (4) foundations using this as a means to fulfill their mission and (5) universities as a means to attract attention. All programs founded have been covered extensively in the national media and thereby have encouraged others to found a program, too. As a result many organizations have approached Mira for support.
She has begun her expansion throughout Europe: the EU-wide version of the platform launched in late 2014. In preparation, she and the team have screened and registered 12,000 stipends and other funding opportunities in 28 EU countries, aggregating for the first time a comprehensive platform in the field. Mira’s work has also inspired the founding of other initiatives that now also work towards more transparency in the stipend sector (i.e. in Switzerland and France).
Mira has already been awarded numerous prizes and received considerable attention for her work through articles and interviews in Germany’s most prestigious media outlets. As she works to take her initiative to the next level, she is pursuing three key priorities: First, the platform has to constantly grow further, since there is an estimated total of 6,000 stipend opportunities in Germany. Second, learning from the first projects in raising stipend efficiency and stipend creation will lead to standardized processes and best cases, which Mira wants to actively market into different fields. Third, with its growth and establishment in the field, Mira also works on building a strong organization, which is able to grow also indirectly through cooperation partners in order to scale the impact.
Mira grew up in Africa and Asia to parents who were professionals working for Germany’s governmental overseas development assistance agency (then called GIZ). She realized early on in her childhood how socio-economic status, ethnicity and regional origin can determine opportunities for education. For instance, in her French high school in Hanoi, two thirds of her colleagues depended on scholarships.
As she pursued her university studies at the undergraduate level, Mira never thought she would ever be eligible for any kind of scholarship. Only when, after two years of management consulting, she started preparing for a PhD in mathematical health economics in 2009, did she start looking for scholarships. It suddenly struck her how insufficiently the current scholarship system works and how unjust its results are.
She set up her organization in June 2011, before the end of her PhD in December 2011. The daily stories of positive impact from her users, universities and grant makers have become so overwhelming that it became clear to her that this was much more her calling than research. She is now working full time for her initiative.