How can an international student pay for grad school in the U.S. or Canadian graduate education? [Show Summary]
MPOWER Financing has changed the graduate education financing industry by offering international students loans with no collateral or co-signer requirement. Sasha Ramani, the Associate Director of Corporate Strategy explains how they do this responsibly and shares his own journey through graduate school, which led him to this role.
Interview with Sasha Ramani, Associate Director of Corporate Strategy, MPOWER Financing [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 476th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. Are any of you, whether in the United States or outside of the United States, aiming for the MBA Trinity of Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton? Well, you’re in luck. Next week I’m going to present What It Takes to Get Accepted to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton on Thursday, June 23rd. The webinar is free, but you do need to register to reserve your spot at accepted.com/hsw.
I’d like to welcome to Admissions Straight Talk Sasha Ramani. Sasha grew up in Canada and graduated with distinction from the University of Waterloo where he quadruple majored in Actuarial Science, Statistics, Operations Research, and Business Administration, while also being active on campus. After graduating, he worked for Mars & Co and Deloitte as a Strategy Consultant before moving on to the Harvard Kennedy School, where he completed his MPP in Business and Government. Since 2017, he has worked with MPOWER Financing, a fast-growing FinTech company, providing millions to promising international and DACA students without collateral or co-signers.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? [2:05]
Sure, absolutely. I’m from a city called Mississauga. It’s a suburb of Toronto in Canada. That’s where I was born and raised. I spent my entire childhood there until the end of college. Then I moved to New York City and worked as a management consultant for two different consultancies, Mars & Co and Deloitte Consulting. I specialized in investment management. That’s the traditional consulting work of helping firms grow and expand, advising on mergers and acquisitions, cost-cutting, or other ways they can expand their product or geographic services.
After that, I moved on to the Harvard Kennedy School where I got a Master’s in Public Policy. That’s when I came across MPOWER almost by accident. I came across the firm at a startup career fair, not even looking for jobs, but just looking for interesting startups and getting a flavor for what people were doing.
It just sort of crossed my mind that if for me, as a Canadian in the U.S., which makes me the least international of all students, to get a bank account, a credit card, or other bread and butter financial product was kind of like pulling teeth – imagine what it’s like for a student from India, China, Mexico, Brazil, or any of the other 200 plus countries thatMPOWER serves. So I did my graduate school internship with MPOWER in 2017. I loved the experience. When I completed my master’s in 2018, I joined full-time and I’ve had the pleasure of being the Head of Corporate Strategy ever since then.
How did you go from the very focused to the big picture? [4:07]
My undergraduate was a double undergrad between a Bachelor’s in Mathematics from the University of Waterloo, and a BBA, Bachelor’s of Business Administration, from next-door Wilfrid Laurier University. It’s a short walk between these schools, about 15 minutes. They’ve collaborated to have this cross-disciplinary double undergraduate program together. It’s actually considered one of Canada’s leading undergraduate programs for students interested in those fields. It’s also a co-op program, which means students take work terms that are interplaced between study terms.
I realized that what I liked most about my experience doing co-op jobs as an actuary was the part that made me feel like a management consultant. That’s when you go into an organization, you solve a problem, which may or may not be clearly defined, for four months at a time. Then you leave. You go back to school and if your company likes you, they’ll hire you back again for the next co-op term for your next internship, so to speak. That’s what made me really get interested in management consulting. I sort of realized at some point that I was personally not a huge fan of actuarial work. I chose it because if you look at all the rankings of jobs with good salaries for not much stress, actuaries tend to top the charts. But ultimately when I was in my early twenties I felt, “You know what? I’m not afraid of a little stress. I’m not afraid of a little challenge.”
Ultimately, I got a good job in management consulting in New York City. What young twenty-something year old would not jump at the opportunity to move to New York City? Especially me being a sheltered Canadian child. Ultimately looking back, I don’t want to say it was a risky decision, but it was definitely a little bit riskier than the cushier actuarial job that was waiting for me in Toronto after I completed my undergraduate. But I have never looked back since.
Why did you decide to pursue the MPP? [6:59]
I seriously looked into both an MPP and MBA. They are definitely not mutually exclusive. Students can, depending on the schools, absolutely do both. Each degree is typically two years in length, but a lot of schools offer the option to do both. For myself personally, I felt that if you look at what a lot of career outcomes are like for MBA students, they tend to be consulting. That tends to be the biggest employer. At that point, I’d already had five years of consulting experience, which my colleagues described to me as a “real life MBA,” which a lot of it was. I also did have an undergraduate business experience from one of Canada’s leading schools in that field. I felt that personally, I would gain a little bit less from an MBA experience than other folks who do an MBA. The last thing I’m going to do is denigrate the MBA experience but I felt for me it would not have been a great fit, especially at a school like the Harvard Business School, which has a very regimented first-year core curriculum with zero flexibility in that first year. Personally, I felt that I already had a strong academic and practical experience compared to what that core would’ve trained me with.
I had a strong interest in policy, particularly foreign policy. The reason I ultimately wanted to do that is that a lot of my management consulting experience was consulting for large beverage companies. I realized at some point, if I’m doing my job well and helping sell more sugary beverages, I’m ultimately making the world a less well-off place. I wanted to achieve some social good or impact but I’m a very private sector-oriented person. I’m not one who’s inherently going to work for nonprofits or join the government. For me, that’s less of a good fit. In terms of seeking social benefit through the private sector or through business, the MPP at the Harvard Kennedy School was a great fit for me and my interests, while also allowing me to pick and choose the specific courses that I wanted to take at Harvard Business School, MIT’s Business School, and Harvard Law School.
While I did graduate with an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School, I had a very cross-disciplinary education, not only at Harvard, but at next-door MIT as well. I had to do the required curriculum at the Harvard Kennedy School. So in one sense, I couldn’t move away from the core curriculum entirely, but the Kennedy School does offer more flexibility. Their core curriculum, which is math and economics, are things, which thanks to my background, I was able to really get top grades in without having to worry too much. I was able to go above the course load, which again was not possible at the Business School.
Was there any part of the application process to HKS that you found challenging? Was that the only MPP program that you applied to? [11:06]
That actually was the only MPP program I applied to. I was quite fortunate that I got accepted by my first and only choice.
In terms of parts of that application process that were tricky, nothing was completely out of left field. I later did some part-time work at the Kennedy School Admissions Office, and the way I describe it to people is that it’s important to convey a sense of passion. Tell me what you care about and prove to me that you care about it and connect the dots between what you’ve done, how this degree will help you, and where you want to go afterward.
My advice, and I’m sure you’ve mentioned some version of this in the past, is to connect the dots in your life to have some sort of logical story that I can get my head around.
How did you become involved in FinTech and MPOWER after HKS? [12:35]
I always had a high-level interest in financial services. That’s my undergraduate background, and I got my CFA charter while I was working in consulting. Also, just given that a lot of my consulting experience was in investment management, a lot of the talk of the day was FinTech disruptors, especially robo-advisors. I came across MPOWER by accident, as I mentioned in a startup career fair. Honestly, when I was at the Kennedy School I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do after graduation, but I sort of figured there are a couple of Venn diagrams that mattered to me, and ultimately those were financial services, technology, so that’s FinTech, some element of social impact and also an international focus. In MPOWER Financing, I was delighted to have come across a firm that absolutely hit the intersects of all those four circles and let me keep a Canadian presence as well since I was interned out of Canada when I joined full-time at MPOWER as well.
How is MPOWER Financing different and better than other loan options out there for international students? [13:58]
I think you’re asking a really interesting question, but it assumes that international students have options for financing their education. That’s a problem that MPOWER strives to solve. MPOWER is the leading provider of scholarships and no-cosigner loans to students from pretty much every country in the world. We worked with students at 200+ countries across about 400 top universities around the U.S. and Canada. We provide fixed-rate loans, which are oftentimes competitive with federal Grad PLUS loans to help students from pretty much any country in the world finance their education.
Are there any countries that you will not lend to? [14:45]
There are, but those tend to be very much edge cases. For example, I don’t think there are many North Korean students studying in the U.S., as an example. That’s almost the extreme one, but also we don’t work with students from Cuba and Iran not because we don’t want to, we’re actually co-founded by an Iranian refugee, but the U.S. Government doesn’t make working with them particularly easy.
Where does the tech come in at MPOWER? [15:21]
So the joke in FinTech is that it’s easy to give money away, but you have to actually get it back afterward too. We laugh, but there is a large list of lending technology startups that have not quite figured that part out. MPOWER is absolutely a tech firm at our heart in that we’re driven by our stellar engineering and our loan platform. We’ve integrated technologically with leading financial services firms around the world, whether they be U.S. banks or global loan payment and loan servicing firms. We play nicely with leading FinTech darlings like Flywire and Nova Credit, which is a San Francisco-based international credit bureau startup. I think we were actually Nova’s first institutional client. We’re really making sure that we offer a tech-driven, tech-first platform for students from around the world.
At MPOWER the core tech goes into the underwriting. How do you lend to students who have no social security number, no U.S. credit score, and without co-signers or collateral? Ultimately, that goes down to our big data infrastructure of understanding student outcomes after graduation.
We look at what they’ve done before their MBA or whatever degree they happen to be studying. We look at immigration outcomes and we look at the career and financial outcomes after graduation, whether that student stays in the U.S., goes back home to India or whatever their home country is, or moves to a third country because the world is not so black and white. Part of the tech infrastructure is making sure that students are able to service and pay their loans easily, no matter where they end up after graduation.
Where are most of your borrowers coming from? [18:10]
We offer funding to students from 200 plus countries around the world. Our biggest country of origin is India. We have a large team in Bangalore, India as well. India is our largest country with about 20 to 25% of our students. Although it’s the largest, there’s also a very long tail after that. Other large countries include China, a lot of Sub-Saharan African countries, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, and several others. We work with Canadian students as well.
Can you tell us about the scholarships MPOWER offers? [19:13]
It’s funny you mention that because in some countries that we work in, they use the term scholarship to mean loan as well. If anything, working at MPOWER has shown me how people around the world speak English. They speak it fluently, but they’ll speak it differently than you and I will.
Essentially a loan has to be repaid. A scholarship does not. It’s free money. We offer a wider variety of different scholarships. Our most popular one is a Global Citizen Scholarship which is open to anyone who is an international student, defined as a non-citizen and not permanent resident.
Some are a little bit focused. We have an MBA Scholarship worth up to $10,000. We also have one for women in STEM. We also offer monthly scholarship series. The eligibility criteria is going to be a little bit different every month but we invite students to go to our website, see what scholarships they might apply for, and hopefully, they’ll win one or more scholarships in the future.
Do you offer loans to people who are applying to other programs outside of MBA? [20:52]
That’s absolutely correct. When we say we work at 400 universities, we mean every degree program at those universities.
Does MPOWER work with current graduate students or graduates to refinance loans? [22:09]
We do. Absolutely. We actually offer, I believe, the only international student loan refinancing product for graduates now working in the U.S. For international students who have taken a loan from their home country, often perhaps with collateral or a co-signer, they’ll be able to refinance that loan with an MPOWER loan, which can help them to reduce their rate and release co-signer and collateral obligations. And with rising interest rates worldwide, we at MPOWER exclusively issue fixed-rate loans, which means a student’s rate will never rise over time.
Do you serve students outside of the U.S. and Canada? [23:16]
We only offer funding for students in the U.S. and Canada. Perhaps one day we’ll be in other countries, but for now we’re exclusively in the U.S. and Canada.
Do you consider the challenges students face repaying U.S. tuition loans if they return to their home countries? [23:37]
It’s absolutely something that we consider, but it’s not as black and white as a lot of people might think. Especially if a student has worked for a couple of years in the U.S. before they go to their home country, which nearly all of our students do. At that point, they’re often able to make a pretty good impact on that loan and pay off a good chunk of the principal. The remaining principal is easily sustainable when they go back home. Core to how we underwrite is making sure that the loan is responsibly repayable whether the student stays in the U.S., goes back to their home country, or goes to a third country as well. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to us as a public benefit corporation, to ensure that we’re setting up students for success and that we’re only lending to students who are able to responsibly carry the burden of the debt that we’re issuing them. Hopefully it will increase their standard of living through a high-quality education, therefore making the loan absolutely worthwhile for the student once they graduate.
What are typical interest rates and the term of a loan? [25:07]
All of our loans are 10 years in length. Our rates for graduate students vary from about 6.5 to 11.99% on the higher end. This compares to some foreign country lenders, which will easily charge rates from the mid-teens to 20 to 30% plus collateral. This is why students from around the world are flocking to our offerings, especially these days when we see international travel resuming. It feels like a dam broke, and our platform is seeing record amounts of traffic. It’s been really exciting to see, now that COVID restrictions are slowly ending, how much we’re able to help students from around the world fulfill all of their highest academic aspirations.
What is MPOWER’s Path2Success? [26:20]
Path2Success is a free program that we at MPOWER offer to all of our students. It basically helps to ensure that our students are successful both in school and after graduation. Some of the services that we offer are free letters to help students with their visa and immigration process. We also offer free services like interview preparation, resume review, and networking support. It’s actually really funny that in a lot of foreign countries, it’s typical on a resume for students to include a picture of themselves and their marital status, things, which are kind of non-starters from an American or Canadian context. Oftentimes, it’s just a little bit of cultural orientation like that. Sometimes it’s a little bit more, and we’ve helped them with mock interviews with some software as well to sort of help them judge their poise and their tone of voice. Sometimes we’ve opened our own personal networks to them as well, like, “Hey, if you want to be a lawyer, I used to work at this law firm. Let me speak to an old partner who I know is looking for interns right now.” It’s one of the many programs that we have to ensure that our students are as successful as possible after graduation.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [27:48]
I think ultimately there’s a lot of misinformation about the industry which really has to do with challenges that a lot of students face. The most exciting thing I find about the industry of international education is that everybody ultimately benefits from high caliber, high talent international students in society. We can talk not only about bringing over or training doctors and engineers and everybody else, but I think it’s so interesting how international students, by often paying the highest tuition rates charged by universities, significantly subsidize the cost of education for American citizens and permanent residents.
There have been some really interesting studies, and I’m going to misquote probably the numbers slightly, that every ten international students at a university essentially means seven more domestic students are able to enroll than otherwise would be able to do so, thanks to the massive subsidy that international students provide for them. We’re not only able to fulfill the academic dreams and aspirations of international students, but indirectly those of American citizens and permanent residents as well, which is of course tremendously important as well.
Where can listeners learn more about MPOWER Financing? [29:35]
Sure. They can check out our website at https://www.mpowerfinancing.com/.
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