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Dana Cita is a fintech lender providing affordable student loans, with a vision to make higher education attainable for all Indonesians. It was the third Indonesian company to graduate from Y Combinator.
For this episode, we sat down with Dana Cita co-founder Susli Lie who led research for World Bank and Asian Development Bank on student financing in emerging markets. She returned to Indonesia a few years ago, eager to tackle this elusive problem.
Presidential call for student financing
Indonesia clearly lags behind its neighboring countries in terms of tertiary enrollment, with approximately 28 percent enrollment rate. The Philippines and Thailand are at around 36 percent and 49 percent, respectively. Moreover, the total cost for tuition for a four-year degree is approximately 1.4x the current GDP per capita, which is high relative to the neighboring countries.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo is then to address the scarcity of student loans in the country. Lie believes that this will become a major opportunity for the nation, considering the growing purchasing power of the young population and the shifting focus from labor to skilled workers. Despite the costs attributed to it, tertiary education has immense power to change a person’s livelihood, which is why Lie thinks the president is putting emphasis on it.
Scarcity of student loan products
Lie says that the lack of student loans is not unique to Indonesia. Developed markets feel that tertiary education is something they are entitled to and that the government should be providing. But it’s different in developing markets.
According to Lie, if we look at the enrollment rates in basic and secondary levels, Indonesia is still playing catch-up. “What you’re seeing in our country is that 20 percent of our national budget is dedicated precisely to solve that problem. So, you could argue that the government should probably be fixing that problem first before tackling tertiary education.”
So for banks, the student loan market is still quite small compared to other types of consumer loans such as motorbikes, cars, and houses. In addition, the financial history of students is fundamentally lacking, which makes student loans riskier (not to mention that they are also typically unsecured and long-term). It would be difficult for banks to focus on this market.
The fintech approach
In general, fintech lenders use technology to compile and gain access to data, and lower costs for both the business and the borrowers. But in the case of student loans, Lie says that acquisition using tech makes a lot of sense as opposed to the traditional brick and mortar model. “If you think about our user base, these are young people [aged between] 18 and 24 […] who are incredibly tech-savvy, have a strong online presence, and are easily reachable,” she explains.
Lie says that fintech companies can also partner with banks when it comes to providing specialized products. “I think fintech companies operate best when they’re a niche player.” She shares that Dana Cita work closely with a community of borrowers, which enables them to understand their consumers and the nuances of the niche.
Moreover, fintech startups are more agile because they can take different types of risks and are open to innovation.
The government’s role
Lie says trying to solve a meaningful social problem at scale almost always requires the government’s involvement—whether as a policy maker or a provider of resources. When it comes to higher education, the government often acts as a lender of first resource, which is often virtually free or highly subsidized.
In Anglo-Saxon countries such as Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and the US, the governments there partner with the private sector to guarantee affordable tertiary education. How can they do this? They simply have the spending power from the taxes. Developing nations, on the other hand, couldn’t allocate as much.
Lie believes that the government could help fintech companies and banks to access people’s data (who are outside of the mainstream financial system today) to verify identities and check prior credit performance. The government could also directly invest in high-quality, job-ready education institutions, or make it easier for the private sector to come in and do that.
Lie applauds OJK (Indonesia’s financial services authority) for allowing fintech companies to innovate and test the market. If the government continues to allow fintech companies to understand their customers better, these firms would become better at providing solutions.
Next five years
Lie believes that the demand for student loans and high-quality higher education will only increase. The labor market demand and the spending power of consumers will influence this as well. She has no doubt that as the market grows, other players are going to start coming into the space. This way, consumers will have options, and it is important that lenders compete in a healthy way to allow for a better-quality higher education.
“The challenge is, how do we make sure that as the government sets policies, all the incentives are aligned? And that as more players come into the space, how do we make sure we’re creating something that’s ultimately beneficial to the society?”
A World Bank study showed that if you come from the lowest income quintile, you have a 5 percent chance at best to access higher education. And if you come from the top 20 percent of the population, you have a 50 percent to 60 percent chance of accessing it. It is not a perfect correlation, but there’s some sort of an income factor there. “If we can take [that] away, suddenly schools will have to compete not on the basis of who can afford this, but really on what they’re offering,” says Lie.
She is also wary that in their good intent to push for student loans, players in the space might inevitably introduce market distortions that may result in lower competitiveness, or, even worse, a broad perception that student loans are bad. During the 1980s, Indonesia had something called Kredit Mahasiswa Indonesia, which is a government-backed initiative for student loans that experienced a very high default in the end.
But according to Lie, credit as a concept in and of itself isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s a mechanism to smooth out expenditure, and that’s what a student loan ultimately is. “But I think the challenge is not whether student loans are bad or good,” says Lie. “The challenge is, how do we make sure that as the government sets policies, all the incentives are aligned? And that as [more players] come into the space, how do we make sure we’re creating something that’s ultimately beneficial to the society?”