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How Frontier Markets Taught Me to Love My Student Loans

In June 2017, I graduated from The University of Chicago with both an MBA and a student loan burden of $203,419.72. I don’t come from a family of means. The relatives I grew up with are journalists, social workers, teachers, art historians, and therapists. As currently structured, I’ll be paying monthly obligations to my loan providers for the next 25 years. I’m optimistic that I’ll be done sooner — Chicago Booth MBAs tend to be well compensated — but as someone who took an untraditional path post-graduation I know that I can count on nothing.

However, the benefits of my education far outstrip those costs. I was given access to a genuinely lifechanging educational experience that radically transformed my mental makeup, my skillsets, and my employability. Best of all, I could shift my career trajectory to pursue an interesting and impactful life. Before business school I helped hedge funds roll out and maintain data systems. Now I spend my days working with brilliant and motivated coworkers to help incredible businesses led by talented entrepreneurs in frontier countries. My current financial take-home is below what I was making before business school, but my job’s sky-high moral and intellectual compensation make me feel like I’ve pulled off some sort of heist. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not excited to kiss my money goodbye when my first loan payments are due next month. But I’d make the same tradeoff all over again without a moment’s hesitation.

People in developing countries don’t have the opportunity to make that choice. A lack of access to capital traps talented humans in the same financial, social, and geographic neighborhoods that they were born in. Standing in the streets of Kampala, Bamako, and Yangon, I’ve borne witness to vast human talent that was lost for want of credit. In many countries, those without money scrimp and save to afford each year’s education, and if they don’t have the money, then they’re forced to spend the year outside of school. As a result, it’s not unheard of in Uganda, for instance, for 20-year-olds to be in the same classroom as 12-year-olds. Others never even have the money to afford a single year’s schooling. This limits social mobility, prevents the development of an educated citizenry and skilled workforce, and traps communities in low levels of development. Sitting in Dar es Salaam’s legendary traffic and watching hawkers sling knockoff Chinese Ray Bans in the blazing sun as they try and scrape together money for food, all I can think is that there, but for the grace of good fortune, go I.

I’m still in favor of state-funded tuition, but for the same reason that I’m in favor of single payer healthcare: I believe that each system incentivizes the development of a healthier nation, though one does so intellectually while the other does so medically. Universal anything means that users are effectively subsidized by non-users, however, and so I don’t feel wronged by having to pay full-ticket for my education. And yes, some people get screwed by student loans, but the villain there is information asymmetry. Anecdotally, the people I know who aren’t seeing equivalent value of any kind to the loans they’re paying off are people who either didn’t have visibility into the likely outcomes of their education or whose outcomes were shifted by a large and negative economic shock. The former could be solved by giving people access to transparent data on the outcomes of studying subject X at college Y, for instance. The latter, meanwhile, is harder to solve. We’re all at the mercy of the global economy to some degree or another. If I had graduated from college in 2008 my career would look markedly different — likely for the worse.

I’m not excited to press a button on a website every month that makes money disappear from my bank account, and I’ll celebrate like hell the day that I pay off the last dollar of my student debt. Thanks to my time in frontier markets, however, I know how lucky I am to have had access to capital to finance my education. My student loans might be the best thing that ever happened to me.




Alter finds and scales the world’s best tech founders. Our high-growth ventures are led by high-character entrepreneurs who are not just building their companies, they are building their countries. #ventureboldly

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Julian Rowlands

Julian Rowlands

Head of Finance @ Spruce // Chicago Booth alum // Worked in Indonesia, Mali, Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, Myanmar // Scruffy and kind

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