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MasterCard Foundation scholars from various North American universities at a leadership seminar.

Jake Naughton for the MasterCard Foundation

Irene Kinyanguli, a senior at Arizona State University, comes from Tanzania, where her father works in a gas station and her mother is a teacher. “We did have the basics -- food, shelter, clothing -- we got what we needed,” Kinyanguli says. But an international higher education would have been out of reach without a scholarship.

Kinyanguli is one of more than 100 students at Arizona State on full scholarships funded by the MasterCard Foundation, which to date reports having made pledges of about $828 million for its four-year-old flagship scholarship program. The program, officially launched in 2012, is focused on developing young leaders from disadvantaged backgrounds who come primarily from the African continent.

“If I wake up tomorrow the president of Tanzania,” says Kinyanguli, a public policy major who spent the summer as an intern to Tanzania’s permanent mission to the United Nations, “MasterCard would have played a very big role.”

As of August of this year, the Toronto-based MasterCard Foundation -- an independent, private foundation founded with a gift of shares when the credit card company of the same name went public in 2006 -- had awarded scholarships to a total of 19,338 students. The vast majority of scholarship recipients so far -- 16,677, or about 86 percent -- study at the high school level through one of the foundation’s nongovernmental organization partners in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. Another 2,661 students have earned scholarships for university-level education -- 2,274 for undergraduate study and 387 for graduate programs. About two-thirds of the scholars across all educational levels are women, though the proportion of women is slightly lower at the undergraduate (62 percent) and graduate (57 percent) levels.

At the university level, the foundation has entered into partnerships with universities that handle the recruitment and admission of scholars. The foundation has agreements with 10 well-known colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada, as well as one institution in the Middle East, one in Latin America and one in Europe (see box for a full list of universities). However, the majority of university-level scholars-- 64 percent at the undergraduate level and 70 percent at the graduate level -- study at partner universities in Africa.

Partnering Universities and NGOs


African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (multicountry)
African Leadership Academy (multicountry)
Ashesi University (Ghana)
Campaign for Female Education (Ghana)
Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda
Forum for African Women Educationalists (Rwanda)
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Ghana)
Makerere University (Uganda)
University of Cape Town (South Africa)
University of Pretoria (South Africa)

U.S. and Canada

Arizona State University
Duke University
McGill University
Michigan State University
Stanford University
University of British Columbia
University of California, Berkeley
University of Toronto
Wellesley College


American University of Beirut (Lebanon)
EARTH University (Costa Rica)
University of Edinburgh (Scotland)

“It’s one of the largest private scholarship programs that have ever been implemented for African youth,” says Kim Kerr, the MasterCard Foundation’s deputy director for education and learning. “The purpose of the scholars program is to support both education but also leadership development of bright young people that have a personal commitment to change the world around them and want to improve the lives of others.”

At a time when many Western universities are focused on international strategies that involve recruiting students who can afford to pay for their educations, MasterCard’s initiative stands out as a major funding source for students from a less wealthy part of the world. Students from sub-Saharan Africa make up just 3.4 percent of international students at U.S. institutions, according to the latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education.

“It’s a big bet for sure and a very high-profile one at that,” says Joan Dassin, a professor of international education and development at Brandeis University and formerly the director of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program, which supported graduate-level education for about 4,300 people from developing countries from 2001 through 2013. Dassin is co-editing a forthcoming book on international scholarships in higher education that will include a chapter on the MasterCard Foundation Scholars program.

“One of the very commendable aspects of the program is they invested quite early in an evaluation framework, so they have been collecting data and information and are now even envisioning a longer-term tracking study that would look at the outcomes over the decades,” Dassin said. That’s very important because of the high investment in students at early stages of their schooling. The Ford Foundation took a different bet. We focused on graduate-level education because we felt that was the quickest route to providing people with the education and skills they need to make an impact on their home countries.”

“Both approaches are valid,” Dassin said. “But what I think is interesting is MasterCard has really thought long and hard about what is the appropriate evaluation framework for this kind of program that puts such high stakes on an early level of schooling when in fact the results of that in terms of formation of professionals or capacity-building of governments or social entrepreneurship -- the kind of social change outcomes that funders like to see -- are way off in the future.”

“Tracking our scholars will be a decades-long project,” Barry Burciul, the senior manager for learning and strategy at the MasterCard Foundation, said via email. “In the short term, we’re focusing on understanding scholars’ pathways in terms of educational attainment, postgraduation transitions to further education or work, and their attitudes and intentions with respect to leadership and their place as agents of social change. In the longer term, we’re keen to understand the ways in which scholars are creating growth and change in their communities and broader societies. What is their impact, what factors help or hinder them along the way, and through what mechanisms are they able to succeed?”

There are relatively few alumni of the program at this point -- 3,450 total, and just 262 at the higher education level (136 at the undergraduate level and 126 at the graduate level). A small-scale survey of 36 of the university-level alumni -- 17 women and 19 men from Africa and the Middle East, all but four of whom studied outside their home country -- found that six to 18 months after graduation, 14 of the scholars were working, 14 were pursuing further education, six were doing both and two were neither working nor in school. About half of the alumni (47 percent) were living in their home countries. Another 33 percent indicated they planned to return home within the next five years, while 8 percent said they did not know when but planned on returning. Eleven percent said they did not know whether they would return.

There is no contractual requirement that those who study abroad on the MasterCard Foundation’s scholarships return to their home countries. “The vision for the program was to do as much as we could to encourage return, without enforcing it contractually in one way or another,” says the foundation’s Kerr. “We tried to create as much a pull factor as we can back to Africa for the students who are studying outside of the continent. In part that’s been just by the identification of the young people that we support in the program. We look for people who have a strong interest in doing something to support their communities and their countries.”

The scholarship program provides funding for its university-level scholars to complete internships in Africa, which Kerr described as another “powerful pull factor.”

“And more and more we also recognize the importance of a network for young people, so we’ve done a lot of work in the program in terms of building connections among scholars, having a strong, vibrant network that you tap into and [that] lets you know about opportunities and makes you feel part of something when you’re returning to Ghana or Kenya or Uganda, wherever it may be,” Kerr said.

The scholarships are comprehensive, covering not just tuition and fees, but also room and board, books and supplies, and transportation-related costs. Scholars also receive a living stipend, the amount of which varies by institution, and there is additional funding for participation in internships and leadership development programs. The foundation also provides funds to institutions to underwrite salaries of staff associated with the program.

A report on the program published by the foundation in September found that three-quarters of the university-level scholars enrolled in the 2014-15 academic year earned grade point averages of 3.0 or above --- though it notes the data are preliminary, “and based on the first two, relatively small cohorts of tertiary scholars.” The scholarship has three core selection criteria: academic talent, leadership potential and economic disadvantage.

Chinwe A. Effiong, the assistant dean for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars and youth empowerment programs at Michigan State University, said she’s been impressed by the quality of students being recruited through the program. Effiong said Michigan State received 1,200 applications for MasterCard Foundation scholarships last year, short-listed 60 students and selected 20. Just over half of the scholars -- 53 percent -- are in the university’s Honors College.

“These are really the best students,” Effiong said. “Then when you sit with them and start listening to their stories, it just blows you away. Some are coming from very underprivileged homes, and you see that the objective of the foundation to find those diamonds in the rough is being met. They’re going out of their way to look for young people who would never have had the opportunity of this kind of education but have so much to offer, just given the right opportunity and exposure.”

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