Amira Yahyaoui isn’t exactly a huge Star Wars fan, but she is familiar with Tatooine.
In the franchise, the desolate desert planet was home to Luke Skywalker. It is based on a real-life city in the desert of southern Tunisia called Tataouine, where Yahyaoui is from.
When she started her first company, an education startup, she pulled inspiration from her home city’s fictional twin. Mos is part of the name of major cities within Tatooine. It’s also easy to pronounce regardless of someone’s accent, easy to spell, and even easier to remember. Yahyahoui was sold, and Mos the startup was born.
Yahyahoui said her journey to Silicon Valley is “the absolute opposite” of the traditional way, and Mos isn’t exactly another app for on-demand delivery. With nearly $17 million in funding from all-star backers like Sequoia Capital, Steph Curry, Jay Z, and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Mos is tackling the college affordability crisis by offering a one-stop-shop approach to searching and applying for all government-offered financial aid packages.
“I personally believe that it’s absurd for students to pay that much to get an education,” Yahyaoui told Business Insider. “There are ways of significantly lowering the bill, but the process is insanely complicated with a lot of red tape and applications. We don’t think someone deserves an education just for spending hours on Google searching or filling out forms.”
As many schools shuttered during the pandemic, sending droves of students out of dorms and back into their families’ homes, the affordability crisis that had long been simmering reached a boiling point. Many students have struggled to justify the sky-high costs of tuition now that the entire college experience has moved online while many universities haven’t budged on the costs. This disconnect has left many students wondering what the value of a college education really is, Yahyaoui said.
In the immediate term, Mos has put its resources behind appealing financial aid decisions for students that have been directly affected by the pandemic. This includes students who have lost jobs, or are trying to support family members that have lost their jobs.
“Students are seriously suffering during this period and many have lost their income or their parents have lost their income, which means they are eligible for more financial aid,” Yahyaoui said.
‘A kid of the internet’ and a revolution
Yahyaoui didn’t get into any universities she applied to the first time around. As a Tunisian student, she didn’t meet the requirements to study abroad. But after leading an active role in the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Yahyaoui was suddenly an internationally recognized face. She said she had offers from many Ivy League universities in the United States, and eventually went on to accept paid fellowships at both Yale University and Stanford University.
“When we say the US has a good education system, it’s true. It’s bad in that it’s unequal, but it’s great in that it’s the most interesting and highest quality,” Yahyaoui said.
But Yahyaoui still struggled to understand why she was being paid to attend when she so recently struggled to be accepted, let alone qualify for financial assistance. By 2017, she started building the tool that would eventually become Mos by collecting all the information on government-funded scholarships and financial aid packages in a single webpage.
“As a kid of the internet, I believe that tech can be a force for positive construction and change,” Yahyaoui said. “That’s how the Arab Spring was and without it, we weren’t able to make any change. I wanted to build something that helps change people’s lives.”
Yahyaoui said that 2019 was the first academic year that Mos completed, although it looked much different at the end than she had expected. And there are big questions looming over the future of today’s pricey higher education system, she says.
“There are two areas of thought on what comes next,” Yahyaoui said. “Some people think ‘Oh colleges are dead, no students will go back, and everyone is doing a coding bootcamp instead,’ and that’s not true or possible. Others think colleges can still bill $100,000 a year and it will be business as usual and in two years this will be forgotten. Both are not going to happen”
Instead, Yahyaoui sees a future where students pay less, take more time off, and get the real work networks and experiences that colleges have been traditionally known for. Without significant changes, however, the university model as it currently stands will not continue, she said.
“The question is now how the universities will review their business model and how the financing of colleges will be in the future,” Yahyaoui said. “We are far from the revolution of education. It’s not an engineering problem. You need learning but you also need the experience, and the online experience right now is pretty poor.”