What if You Never Went to High School?

One in three kids worldwide don’t get the chance.

Credit: Todd Shapera

Masika Ali started school at age 6. A year later her mother could no longer pay the fees, so she stayed home with her five siblings, helping sell firewood to neighbors. That changed when Kenya made primary school free. At 11, in her gray and white school uniform, Masika began studying math, swahili and science, playing volleyball on her school team, and dreaming of becoming a doctor.

She is among the 75 million children who went to school thanks to a global effort to provide every child with free primary education. Today 90 percent of children worldwide attend primary school, UNESCO reports.

But the world hasn’t gotten around to making high school free. In Kenya a year of high school costs more than $250, an impossible amount for the half of Kenyans who, like Masika’s family, live on less than two dollars a day. So while nine in 10 children of primary school age are in school, one in three adolescents of high school age is not.

A quarter of the people on this planet are 18 or younger and live in low- or lower middle-income countries. Whether this huge group’s influence is positive or negative will largely depend on if they become productive members of the workforce. And that will depend on education. Globalization and technology demand skills beyond what can be gained in primary school. For anyone who wants to climb above subsistence, secondary education is a must.

I met Masika a month before she finished primary school. I had just graduated from college and she was about to drop out after eighth grade. With a few hundred dollars from my family and friends, Masika started high school. Just a few hundred dollars was all it took to transform her future from selling firewood to becoming a high school freshman with a dream of studying medicine.

At Stanford University, Phil Knight, founder of Nike, recently pledged $400 million in scholarship support for future Stanford students who will use their education to address global poverty and climate change. We might not have $400 million to give, but many of us can afford a few hundred dollars to provide education for a student in a country where poverty is otherwise inescapable.

Organizations like The School Fund help increase access to secondary education in low-income countries and make giving easy by joining donors in the United States with grass-roots nonprofits that provide high school scholarships to high-potential students. She’s the First does similar work with girls who are the first in their family to pursue education, and Camfed supports girls’ education by working with 5,000 schools across five countries in Africa.

Jeff Okoth runs one of the nonprofits working with The School Fund. He got it half right when he said “giving your money to take a child to school is something that … I’m telling you, is the biggest gift that you’ll ever give to any child in this world.” The half he missed is how fulfilling it is as a donor to have that kind of impact on someone’s life.

Masika, now 25, recently graduated from university with a diploma in Laboratory Science. Along with Masika, my colleagues and I sponsor 300 students on the coast of Kenya through an organization called Hatua. We provide each with a high school and university scholarship, mentoring in life skills, leadership training, and one-on-one career guidance throughout college.

As part of that guidance Masika was paired with a lab technician who regularly invited her to work in the lab. This experience and the networks Masika built through her mentor helped her get her first job as a hospital lab technician. She’s now working full time, earning 5 times more than had she dropped out of school, and using her income to help pay school fees for her younger siblings. This is not poverty alleviation. It’s a total transformation- from poverty to a professional career.

We all have a role to play helping students like Masika. It’s thanks to the generosity and support of others that we are privileged with opportunity. Now it’s our chance to share, so they too can pay it forward.

Gabrielle Fondiller is a business student at Stanford and co-founder of the organization Hatua Likoni.