With student loan debt at a trillion dollars and rising, it's hardly surprising that more and more students are searching for creative ways to finance their college educations. But while extreme measures, like renting out one's face for advertising or majoring in petroleum engineering have their merits, they aren't quite the broad-based solutions that millions of students and recent graduates need.
Most tuition proposals, like President Obama's college incentive plan and FixUC's innovative post-graduate tuition payment proposal, are aimed at the next generation of students; they do little for current undergrads, much less the millions of alumni desperately trying to pay down their student loans.
Today's average student borrower takes out $25,250 in loans, an all-time high. Thankfully, a number of companies are stepping forward with innovative tools to help students fill the funding gap.
Navigating Financial Aid
One of the first problems with paying for college lies in finding out exactly how much it will cost. Between the confusing morass of financial aid offerings and the dozens of extra fees that most schools pile on top of the base tuition, prospective students often have only a vague idea of the financial burden they're taking on -- or of the options that are open to them. "Many people don't apply for financial aid because they don't think that they'll qualify," claims Sue Khim, founder and CEO of Alltuition.com. "Last year, more than 2 million people who would have qualified didn't apply."
Alltuition helps prospective students get an idea of exactly how much they'll pay to attend a particular university. To do this, it adds together tuition, likely book costs and living expenses, then estimates how much of the total would be covered by grants, scholarships and loans. Khim notes that most of the site's information is available through reports compiled by the federal government, but that it's out there piecemeal: "We merge the data and randomly sample schools to make sure that it is accurate."
When it comes to determining how much financial aid a student is eligible for, universities consider a variety of factors, but AllTuition bases its estimates solely on family income. As Khim explains, "We've found that family income is one of the largest determinants of the level of financial aid that a family qualifies for." By focusing on this single factor, the site can simplify the process and offer a reasonable -- albeit far from definitive -- estimate that families can work with. Universities, on the other hand, "tend to be much more cautious about their estimates," Khim says, though many universities have found Alltuition useful, and link to it from their own websites.
The site's financial estimation tools are free; it only charges for its one-on-one services, in which staffers aid families trying to figure out their financial aid options.
Khim and her partners developed AllTuition because of their own painful experiences with college financing. "I did this process for myself in college," she recalls. "I thought that I was savvy, but, looking back, I realize that it was overwhelming. ... I realized that, by making the financial aid process easier, I could also make [college] accessible to a larger group of people."
The Weekly Scholarship
But figuring out the real cost of college is only half the problem; the other half is finding ways to pay for it. Jim Wolfston, CEO of CollegeNET, thinks his company may offer a small piece of the solution. The firm, which develops and operates web technology for colleges across the country, gives away a weekly scholarships totaling between $3,000 and $10,000.
In some ways, CollegeNET uses a fairly traditional scholarship model -- the student who writes the best response to a question posed on the site ends up with the money. But the selection process has an interesting twist: The winning entry isn't determined by an anonymous panel of educators, but by the site's college-aged users.
"We decided to give the power to students," Wolfston says. "We opened up the essay options to them, so they could see what others write, learn from their work, and figure out how their ideas fit into the topic mix on the site." In the process of pursuing its grants, the company hopes, students will learn valuable lessons about the best way to present their ideas.
CollegeNET's model wasn't always quite so innovative: When it started offering scholarships fifteen years ago, it used a fairly traditional structure. "Our method was pretty much the same-old, same-old," Wolfston admits. "We had a panel of adults who decided the winner. It was a lot of work." Ultimately, the company decided that the best way to streamline its scholarship process was to cede control to its student users. "Now students come up with topics that they think will be interesting to their peers, and decide which essays are best written," Wolfston explains. "We've given students the power to control the scholarship process, as well as the opportunity to develop journalistic awareness and skill."
To encourage participation, the site also gives scholarship money to students who contribute questions and vote on the essays.
CollegeNET's awards are funded out of the site's advertising revenues, which means that, in addition to deciding who gets the money, its student users also indirectly control the size of the awards. "As the site gets more user activity, it adds more money to the scholarship fund," Wolfston explains. "As our exposure increases, it increases the money that's available." Right now, he estimates, the site gets 30,000 to 40,000 users per month, many of whom are referrals from student aid offices is high schools and universities.
As more students discover CollegeNET, the size of its scholarships will increase. "We hope to give away a lot of money," Wolfston notes. "Our site could be very helpful in this environment."
This article was originally published on AOL Daily Finance.
Previously: Comparing Financial Aid Packages