Realizing Education Dreams in Switzerland: An interview with EDUCA SWISS CEO Simon Merki
May 9, 2023
Education strengthens the national economy and promotes a healthy society. But education is not within reach for everyone, with many lacking the resources to pursue further study. Particularly affected are people with a migration background, from educationally disadvantaged families, or families with many children. In addition to financial problems, the main reasons for this are a lack of support and inadequate planning of the career prospects of an education.
These three factors are directly addressed by EDUCA SWISS, which provides education loans coupled with coaching, free of charge, to clarify students’ career plans and thoroughly verify their financial needs. Education loans create lasting impact, increase education completion rates and can be repurposed after repayment.
We caught up with the CEO of EDUCA SWISS, Simon Merki, to talk more about their work and some recent exciting developments around their multilingual expansion.
How did the idea for EDUCA SWISS come about?
Simon: The idea was born out of the problem that there are still gaps in education funding in Switzerland, denying more than 10,000 people a year the education or training they want. People run out of money, and they do not receive sufficient financial support from their relatives, employers, and scholarship offices. Commercial providers who promise quick loans and charge exorbitant prices are not a sustainable way out. In the worst cases, this leads to over-indebtedness. The four founders of EDUCA SWISS heard of an inspiring private initiative from students, who tried to present their own educational project as an investment opportunity to lenders. When the student initiative came into financial and organizational trouble in 2015, EDUCA SWISS was established as a Foundation. In this way, the concept could be further developed and equal opportunities created in the form of a non-profit foundation.
Could you tell us more about the services that EDUCA SWISS offers?
Simon: As a Swiss non-profit organization, we at EDUCA SWISS are committed to promoting and financing education. Our goal is to enable every ambitious person in Switzerland to pursue an education, regardless of their financial situation. Students must meet four criteria: They must live in Switzerland, be of legal age, have a concrete career goal and not be over-indebted.
EDUCA SWISS offers:
- Free coaching for students in the case of financial bottlenecks before and during their studies or training.
- Preparation of a meaningful dossier including a budget, which is also useful for grant applications.
- The arrangement of non-profit education loans with realistic repayment options (if required).
To date, we have successfully and, above all, sustainably supported over 1,400 people with our coaching and provided education loans totaling CHF 7.5 million.
For some students, the idea of loans and debt may be quite daunting; what does your service offer that may help to reassure them and help them to feel confident in moving forward with their studies?
Simon: It is important to understand that our loans are philanthropic education loans and cannot be compared to profit-driven bank loans. We want to avoid over-indebtedness, so we focus on providing amounts that can realistically be repaid after a successful career start. An average of around CHF 15,000 over the entire course of studies is sufficient and fills the gap in cash flow alongside student jobs and other sources of income. The key to success for students is comprehensive and accurate financial planning before even discussing loans. Proper budgeting is not always easy and can be overwhelming, which is why we provide each student with a free coach to support and challenge them in this important task. Only if the project is sustainable and realistic, do we arrange an education loan. As key people, our coaches establish a personal relationship with our students. They advise them constructively, supporting them from the planning stage right through to the full funding of an educational project and until job entry with the eventual repayment of the loan.
Over 90% of EDUCA SWISS students complete their studies, compared to the Swiss average of 74%. Why are EDUCA SWISS students so successful?
Simon: EDUCA SWISS combines realistic planning, facilitated by a coach, with the granting of education loans. This demands and creates a great deal of commitment and support. The key to success is the combination of support provided to students by specially trained coaches together with clear goals, planning, and a focus on motivation. Students report that EDUCA SWISS coaches strengthen them mentally and that the trust-based and solution-oriented counselling continues for several years. Another reason for the above-average completion rates is the increased self-confidence that comes with the promise of a lender. The motivation to complete the educational project successfully increases enormously when an external person is willing to finance an individual project. And the knowledge that the provided loan will most likely fulfil someone else’s dream further strengthens the repayment rate.
Who are these lenders at EDUCA SWISS?
Simon: The lenders we refer to are private individuals or foundations who consider education and training to be an important part of society. By providing education loans, they support people in their educational plans and enable them to achieve their career goals. The interest rates on education loans are not financially profitable for the lenders, but ideally cover the costs to enable sustainable financing of education.
As your services become more popular and demand is growing for educational funding, how is EDUCA SWISS developing to meet these increasing demands?
Simon: Due to a large scholarship backlog in some cantons, the demand for educational funding has been increasing. This includes requests from the French-speaking part of Switzerland and foreigners who wish to study and live in Switzerland, as well as those with a migration background. To address this need, EDUCA SWISS aims to offer its services not only in German, but also professionally in English and French.
We quickly realized that we are only able to accomplish this extensive and cost-intensive objective with strong financing partners. We are very grateful that, with the Fondation Philantrophique Famille Sandoz, we found a partner for regional expansion of our service to the French part of Switzerland. The expansion to the English language is also going to be tackled as soon as possible. Fortunately, we can ensure that almost all (more than 95%) successfully coached individuals receive funding.
At Rising Tide Foundation, we seek to empower individuals by supporting projects that enhance individuals’ capacities for self-determination and individual choice. What does empowerment mean to you?
Simon: Empowerment or “helping people to help themselves” is the foundation of the work of EDUCA SWISS. That is why we also give more weight to motivation or determination than, for example, school grades. If someone takes their situation into their own hands and is willing to go through the whole process with our coach, then that person is in exactly the right place at EDUCA SWISS. Here, through joint planning, the person receives the certainty that education is feasible. The lead and responsibility always lies with the individual themselves.