UC Riverside

From Pencils to Promise to Mission U: Adam Braun talks student loans, student success and college affordability

It’s the most anticipated time of the year for high school seniors, as students finalize their decisions on what path their life will take after they glide across the graduation stage. Throughout our entire lives, we are taught that the traditional means of college is the only legitimate means of socioeconomic progression, and that obtainment of a degree is the only necessary validation needed to succeed within society. From the minute we walk into the doors of our high school, we are being conditioned to enter the traditional system – investing time, money and resources into creating a polished resume and winning the favor of the nameless admissions counselor.

As college signing events happen around the nation, many students will be unable to access higher education because of the increasing financial burden imposed to students. What’s more, the students who are able to enter the institution have a disproportionate chance of graduating with student loan debt, halting their ability to maximize financial security for years.

According to a recent report from The Institute for College Access and Success, seven in 10 seniors (68 percent) who graduated from either a public or private college had student loan debt, averaging $30,100 per borrower. In their 2012 report titled “The Student Debt Crisis,” the Center for American Progress adds that student loan disproportionally affects people of color, with 81 percent of African American identifying students and 67 percent of Latino identifying students graduating college with student loan debt.

Although the issue can often feel unmovable and straddled with administrative red tape, there are individuals who are challenging the system and normalization of student loan debt. One such changemaker is Adam Braun, the founder of Mission U.

Braun is no stranger to the educational justice movement. He’s the founder of Pencils of Promise, an international nonprofit successfully building hundreds of schools in developing countries around the world. Now, Braun is transitioning from focusing on one of the biggest issues at home, which is student loan debt through his organization Mission U.

The one-year program provides students the opportunity to gain real-life job education and training for top companies such as Spotify, while paying no up-front tuition. After you secure a job paying $50,000 or more, you pay 15 percent of your salary for the next three years. No debt. No loans. And if you don’t make $50,000 annual income within seven years of completing the agreement, you are absolved from the agreement.

Braun cites his wife as the inspiration for creating the movement.

“Everything changed when I met my wife… By the time I met her, she had 100k of student debt, and her situation was not a rare one. I wanted to start something to help,” he explained over a phone interview.

Although Pencils of Promise focuses specifically on building schools abroad (with over 400 completed schools to date!), working with international issues mapped directly onto the passion and planning behind Mission U.

“[Pencils of Promise’s] mission was to increase access to quality education around the world, and Mission U seeks to provide affordable high quality education for college-aged students around the U.S. Both have the goal of serving students first… overall, education doesn’t just happen as an individual experience in a classroom but happens in experiences with others. We designed our whole year with working real projects based on real issues students are facing so they can land a job after college,” he explains.

Mission U does not just challenge the institutional inequities put in place through student loan debt, but creates conversations on the factors necessary for student success. In its one year program, all 25 members of the cohort work closely with each other, attending monthly meetings, interviewing at local companies, and participating in vibrant classroom discussions.

When asked about the factors needed to ensure student success, Braun explained that personal motivation is key for academic and professional success.

“First off, there is a core set of character traits that a student can either possess or acquire – grit, resilience, self-directness, and a core set of soft skills such as collaborative team work, critical thinking, and being a great communicator. A support system, is essential, having a community to enable you to get through the challenging moments. You need to have a clear goal in sight, an ambition that you can be working towards that you can. You become your expectations,” he says.

Mission U is all about preparing the next generation for success, and so Braun gave advice to the students wanting to follow in his footsteps or start their own grassroots movement.

“It’s really important that you go beyond your comfort zone, and put yourself in those positions that will allow you to evolve and grow most rapidly. Society will tell you a certain set of decisions in what everyone else should take. If you have an inner voice that tells you differently, be a trailblazer and try other things that others won’t try,” he said.

For more information about Mission U, you can visit their website here.