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6 Startups That Could Help Slash The Cost Of College

From micro-scholarships to FAFSA tools, college financing startups are on the rise.

6 Startups That Could Help Slash The Cost Of College
[Photo: Flickr user Pete]

College these days is bonkers expensive. Take my alma mater, Williams College. For the 2017-18 school year, Williams is charging more than $53,000 for tuition. That fee is roughly in line with the median household income in the U.S.—and doesn’t include the costs of room and board.

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Private colleges like Williams are quick to note that financial aid is readily available, so there’s a meaningful difference between sticker price and student outlay. Moreover, research consistently shows that higher education is worth the cost. Americans with a four-year degree have an unemployment rate that’s less than 3% and command salaries that are twice as high as their less-credentialed counterparts. But the fact remains: College imposes a crushing financial burden on many students and their families.

For an increasing number of startups, that problem presents an opportunity. Here are six that are trying to connect students with financial resources in new and interesting ways, from birth all the way to graduation and beyond.

CollegeBacker

New parents tend to get lots of (unsolicited) advice. Buy this stroller, follow that schedule—oh, and make sure you set up a 529 plan. To save enough money for college these days, American parents have to start at their kid’s birth. But only a quarter park money for college in 529s, the tax-advantaged investment vehicles that offer a clear leg up over savings accounts and other index options. 

CollegeBacker wants to increase the percentage of Americans who open 529s—and make sure that middle- and lower-income households in particular become adopters. The company sets up 529s on users’ behalf, simplifying a sometimes confusing state-level process, and enables contributions from grandparents and friends. To increase accessibility, CollegeBacker allows families to pay a monthly subscription fee of their choosing between zero and $10. “The cost of college continues to rise, and is expected to double again in the next 10 years,” says cofounder and COO Abby Chao. “Our existing solutions aren’t working.”

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RaiseMe

For students who aspire to be the first in their families to pursue higher education, college can feel abstract and elusive. Enter RaiseMe, which rewards high school students for achievements like good grades and campus visits—with cash. “It allows them to set immediate goals,” cofounder and CEO Preston Silverman told the New York Times.

Colleges foot the bill for the scholarships (which are awarded if the student is admitted), while also paying RaiseMe a service fee. Educational institutions at this level spend millions on marketing and view RaiseMe as an effective means of building a relationship with motivated, high-performing students early in their high school career. Silverman and his growing team raised an additional $12 million in venture funding this past March.

Kaleidoscope

When Greg Dehn was growing up, his dad was diagnosed with ALS. Paying for treatment exhausted the family’s savings, leaving Dehn and his twin dependent on private aid to cover the cost of their education. Now, after a career in software development, he has founded Kaleidoscope, a company dedicated to matching students with private scholarship funds—a $72 billion market. It’s like the “common app for private scholarships,” Dehn says of the platform, which launched earlier this year.

At the moment, Kaleidoscope is most useful for private funders, who can use Dehn’s technology to reduce the administrative expenses associated with compliance and grant management. But over time, as the site adds more scholarship listings, it will become increasingly useful to students, too.

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Frank

Students interested in applying for financial aid quickly learn the importance of the dreaded FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which determines eligibility for grants, loans, and work-study programs. The online process managed by the Education Department is clunky and confusing, which deters some students from filing. Frank offers a streamlined alternative. “No one has been incentivized to fix it, which leaves a perfect ground for technology companies to come in and shake things up,” says founder and CEO Charlie Javice. 

Since launching in March, Frank has helped 75,000 families secure aid. Over time, Javice and hopes to build a sustainable business by offering premium services, such as credit counseling, that layer on top of the free FAFSA tool. “We’re acquiring customers cheaply, which is why venture is extremely excited,” she says.

Prodigy Finance

Prodigy specializes in a corner of the higher education market that is both growing and under attack: international postgrads. Graduate students from overseas have become an important source of revenue for U.S. universities, contributing over $32 billion during the 2015-16 academic year. But the Trump administration’s immigration policies have cast a shadow over many campuses, deterring applicants from Muslim-majority countries.

Prodigy, a London-based lending solution for international students, has chosen to step forward into the political fray. Last month, it raised $40 million in new equity financing and $200 million in debt. The company initially focused on students at European universities—with over 10 years of operations, it has issued $325 million in loans—but plans to expand in the U.S. this coming year.

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CommonBond

After graduation, the college financing process is far from over. Students staring down a gulp-worthy debt load can look into refinancing their loans, potentially saving thousands of dollars. Refinancing used to be a paperwork-heavy process, but startups like CommonBond are changing that for the better. After successfully applying to refinance with CommonBond, graduates manage their debt through the startup’s user-friendly website, making it easier to stay on top of monthly payments.

“Traditional financial services aren’t really leveraging the technology that they could, relative to expectations of consumers,” says cofounder and CEO David Klein. Since launching in 2011, the company has funded over $1 billion in loans.

About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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