To ensure students from low-income households have realistic access to higher education, Akshay Saxena is creating an affordable alternative to the expensive tuition classes that currently serve as a threshold for students to pass their college entrance exams. His approach relies heavily on social workers who facilitate the classroom while structuring learning through peer education.
The New Idea
Very few poor youth have access to higher education due to the low quality of prior education available to them, the financial barriers they face, and the lack of awareness or guidance about educational opportunities. To address this, Akshay is building supportive institutions that offer an affordable learning environment, high-quality content, social support, and mentorship to young people who would like to pursue higher education.
Understanding that the lack of teachers is a key barrier, Akshay has introduced a role for social workers in the educational process. While social workers are not subject specialists, they can facilitate an effective learning environment and guide students as they learn. To deliver content, Akshay uses a methodology of peer instruction, which enables students to learn from materials and from each other, without a full-time teacher. As a result, by significantly cutting teaching costs, Akshay is providing quality science and mathematics preparation for college entrance exams and making it accessible to the poorest children.
In India, only 13 percent of the 7.8 million high school graduates attend college. Of these 13 percent, few come from low-income households. The disparity in access to quality education is directly correlated to the socioeconomic status of children. While a handful of elite private schools offer excellent education, the knowledge students receive in public schools is not on par. According to the Global Poverty Research Group, students from private schools in India perform twice as high in numeracy and literacy than students from government schools.
This disparity creates an uneven playing field at the undergraduate education level as university entrance exams are extremely competitive. To further this disparity, entrance exam curricula is different from high school curricula, leading to the formation of a tutoring industry which prepares students for the entrance exams two to three years in advance, charging annual fees of at least US$3,500. As a result, only students who can afford tutoring can perform competitively in the exams.
Public schools don’t offer career guidance to help students evaluate their preferences or the viability of their college choices. Most traditional Indian parents prefer their children study medicine, engineering, or law; considered the most lucrative professions even though there are several other growing sectors where competition is lower and the chances of getting a college seat and a job afterwards are much higher. In addition, colleges have different kinds of exams with different content and testing strategies, requiring focused preparation to a particular college. Thus, these choices need to be made by students and parents two years prior to graduating from grade 12. Often, as first generation learners in their families, poor students do not receive critical guidance while making these choices.
Among students that pursue higher education, only a few are able to compete effectively to enter quality colleges. In India, 68 percent of the colleges have been rated by the national University Grants Commission as below average. A recent evaluation by the National Association of Software and Services Companies has shown that IT firms reject 90 percent of college graduates and 75 percent of engineering graduates due to the simple reason that they are not qualified enough to be trained. As a result, youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have little opportunity to get a good education and access formal employment, in order to move their families out of poverty.
Many innovative pedagogies and educational technologies have been developed; however, many are not designed to be affordable, their implementation requires high investment, and most still heavily depend on the presence of qualified and passionate teachers. Given that public schools are already short1.2 million teachers at all grade levels, such solutions probably will not work at scale.
Akshay’s organization, Avanti, offers a two- to three-year program for students in grades 9 to 12 that enhances their science and math education and prepares them for their undergraduate exams. The program is only offered to children from low-income families and mainly to those studying in government schools. For their classes, Avanti selects the top 5 percent of the students from the pool of applicants through a test and an interview process.
Akshay believes that learning is largely a product of social relationships, and not merely a transfer of information between the teacher and the student. Therefore, in Avanti’s classrooms, the leaders are social workers. While the social worker does not need to be qualified in the specific subjects, they must have strong community and social skills. They act as personal counselors and motivators for the students, and they guide the learning process while maintaining discipline. If any student suddenly demonstrates a drop in performance, the counselors follow up individually and advise him or her. If the student requires academic guidance, the social worker refers him/her to mentors. They also conduct tests and report results and provide feedback. This system allows one facilitator to manage the learning of 100 students in four batches across different disciplines.
The peer learning methodology can largely be divided into four phases. In the first phase, students are provided pre-reading material and are given a small quiz to evaluate their understanding of the text. The second phase follows a methodology developed at Harvard University by Eric Mazur—the facilitator shows students a video describing the concepts along with a handout and then gives them a follow up test with multiple-choice questions. Students share their answers with the class by raising cards and are asked to find a person who disagrees with them to discuss their opinion. Before the discussion, approximately 30 to 50 percent of students get the answer right and by the end, this number increases to 70 to 80 percent. Students are also shown a video to summarize and explain some common misconceptions. This process ensures that each student spends time contemplating and forming an understanding of the concepts presented. In the third phase, students are given quantitative problem sets to solve on their own. They are then divided into groups of five and encouraged to help each other when required. To prepare students for their entrance exams, they are given access to recorded lectures on test-specific problem-solving techniques. Students are allowed in the classrooms after hours to use the space for learning. In addition, each group has one or more student mentors who spend two to three hours every week with the group.
So far, this methodology has been implemented by Avanti in one government residential school with 50 students. In comparison to the performance of the students in the conventional coaching classes, the peer instruction classes show 10 to 15 percent improvements in their performance. To spread this model, Akshay started a company which will run its own coaching centers. This will allow them to provide tuition for students at approximately 1/8 of the current cost of other classes. Akshay raised investment from individuals to support the creation of six centers in 2013. He believes that once the capital costs are covered, the centers will be sustainable.
Working with the municipal corporation schools in Chennai, Avanti’s non-profit arm has taught 150 students so far. By the end of this year, they will expand the number of schools and will be working with 300 students. Once there is convincing evidence this system is effective in schools, they hope to introduce their approach within school classrooms and have the institutions pay a service fee. In addition, the non-profit arm owns the educational materials and knowledge, which allows Avanti to open source their methodology.
Avanti has formed a strong network that creates and improves their educational content. Besides using existing open-source materials, Avanti has approached a coaching company, VMC, to access their video equipment. Avanti has also built a network of students from leading universities to design curriculum for its classes. His advisory board, comprised of globally renowned professors and peer educators, reviews and approves the content before it is delivered in the classroom. Over the years, Avanti has created a strong database of colleges and their relative strengths and weaknesses. This is currently used as a tool to help students make smart choices about where to go to college. Avanti is also in the process of creating an educational portal where a broad range of information related to higher education will be made publically available.
To guide students in their choices of careers and colleges and also to assist them with their academics, Avanti has a network of 300 student volunteers from several Indian Institutes of Technology and one medical school across seven cities. The volunteers go through a rigorous selection and training process. Apart from mentorship, they are involved in Avanti’s enrolment process through open career guidance sessions, during which students are invited to apply for Avanti’s program. Mentoring students helps volunteers develop empathy toward thriving young people. Committed to help them enter colleges, the volunteers support Avanti at all stages of its work, from marketing and enrollment to curriculum creation and mentorship. They also help students’ access educational loans and scholarships. Akshay believes that this is a powerful tool for change in India, where good education is still perceived by many as the prerogative of the affluent class.
Akshay’s parents always placed the highest priority on education, spending at times half of their family’s modest income on both Akshay and his brother’s school fees. His father’s job in the navy took them to different places every few years and gave them a lot of exposure to different cultures. When Akshay was 10 his father left the navy to join a merchant ship. To spend more time with him, the family pulled their children out of school and stayed on the ship with his father. Akshay, despite being largely self-taught, studied with discipline and always performed at the top of the class during school exams. After three years of traveling, he went back to school without difficulty. Later, this experience gave him the conviction to believe that it was possible to learn without a teacher.
Akshay pursued his higher education at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. During college, he played a leading role in several student organizations. He was the president of the newspaper and leader of the on campus mentorship program. Engaging with many students, Akshay had an opportunity to understand the challenges they were facing. In particular, he saw that those who came from the government schools didn’t have strong scientific foundations to keep up with the courses. While he felt that he needed to do something about this, he also felt compelled to contribute financially to his family for the years of hard work his parents put in.
Upon graduation, Akshay joined the Boston Consultancy Group. In his first year, he was posted to a cement plant in a remote rural area. He quickly became accustomed to the place and in the evenings, he went to the village and visited the truck driver’s camp. The people were poor and every family depended on the plant. Akshay soon started to use his salary to provide business loans to the people in the village. He sat with them and helped them make business plans. Most of these loans were never returned, but it did not matter – he realized what it felt like to make a difference. Shortly after his return, Akshay felt restless and quit.
Feeling uncertain of what he was supposed to do, Akshay attended Harvard Business School, where he remembered the conversations he had with his former classmates about supporting the children from low-income families in college. He wrote to a number of people in his IIT network and asked if any were still keen to do something. Two people responded, and one was Krishna, co-founder of Avanti. While Akshay was in the US trying to find resources for Avanti, Krishna and other alumni began creating a mentorship network. Finally, Avanti won $25,000 through a Stanford business plan competition (2010). Akshay offered Krishna the option to quit his consulting job and use the money to start operations. Taking an indefinite leave of absence from Harvard, Akshay returned to India to work full-time on Avanti.