Fintechs clamor to give student loan borrowers relief options – TechCrunch


Since March 2020, student loan borrowers have not had to make any federal student loan payments. Those payments are scheduled to restart as of May 1, 2022 — no doubt causing stress for the borrowers out there.

President Biden may consider extending temporary student loan relief beyond that date, but nothing is yet official.

On March 9, Biden said he would cancel $6.2 billion in student loans for a pre-identified 100,000 borrowers through changes to student loan forgiveness.

While this is certainly good news for those 100,000 borrowers, there remain an estimated 46 million others who are still struggling with student loan debt.

As such, it’s no surprise that a number of fintechs are eager to help borrowers — either current or futures ones —  in one capacity or another. Here, we will unpack the efforts of three: Credit Karma, Chipper and Betterment.

Credit Karma

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Josh Dockery, Credit Karma’s product lead for student loans, shared some insight on the company’s launch of a new product aimed at helping federal student loan borrowers find payment relief “suitable for their financial needs.”

The move marks the 15-year-old company’s first foray at providing relief options for student loan borrowers. Credit Karma estimates that 22 million of its more than 110 million members in the United States hold more than half of the total student loan debt in America. In a study that it conducted, Credit Karma found that many borrowers with outstanding student loan debt have had to sacrifice necessities like groceries and making rent payments in order to maintain their student loan payments.

Its goal with its new offering is to help federal borrowers struggling to stay afloat see if they qualify for loan forgiveness or help them right-size their loan payments to ensure they don’t slip backwards. That way, they have a better chance of being approved for other financial products down the line, it maintains. 

“Ninety percent of student loans are federal loans, and not private. In talking to members, we uncovered and understood that the benefits that come with federal student loans are not always easy to navigate,” Dockery told TechCrunch. “Questions that came up are ‘Am I eligible?’, ‘How do I actually apply?’ We want to make sure they are aware that relief is out there and help them understand, educate and provide them with options that we have high confidence that they are eligible for.”

Credit Karma says its visibility into its members’ financial profiles gives them a way to offer customized estimates and recommendations around how much borrowers can reduce their monthly payments. It also wants to help those that qualify apply for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan or Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) through its partnership with Summer — for no charge.

“One of the reasons we thought it was important to focus on this is that payments may resume on May 1 and more than 60% of our members say they are not ready for it to resume, and don’t think they can make payments,” Dockery said. “Also, economic turmoil and the temperature from a macro standpoint is making it really tough on people as it’s leading to higher interest rates, a higher cost of living and higher gas prices, which are also being impacted by the Ukraine/Russia conflict. This is all putting a ton of stress on people.”

Even if the forbearance is extended, Credit Karma’s take is that its new program can still help its members and just gives them more time to get potential relief or payment plans in place.

Credit Karma earns its revenue in part by charging referral fees to credit products. So if more people can qualify for them, the more money it can earn.

Chipper

Tony Aguilar founded Chipper in 2018 after carrying more than $100,000 in student debt after college. He grew up and went to high school in a small Texas town and his mission with the startup is to help people in the U.S. better manage their student debt, and “chip away” at it faster.

The Austin-based startup designed an app aimed at doing just that. Since its 2020 launch, Chipper has amassed a user base of over 80,000. It claims to help users pay off their student loans four years faster and on average save $309 per month. And it says its app has led to more than $81 million in student loan forgiveness for qualified applicants.

Chipper says it looks at over 150 forgiveness programs, including Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and Teacher Loan Forgiveness. In the case of PSLF, the company says it can evaluate a borrower’s payment history and employer eligibility and automatically collect their signatures on the appropriate forms.

When it comes to loan repayment plans, Chipper says it will analyze whether borrowers are in the “best repayment plan suitable to their needs.” If not, it will help them apply and enroll in a new program directly from its app. It also gives users a way to round up everyday purchases and apply that amount to their student loans. The company recently launched a new program called Chipper Rewards, which provides its users with cash back toward their loans.

In anticipation of the moratorium lift, Chipper told TechCrunch exclusively that it has raised $5.6 million in seed funding so that it can “help even more people…tackle student loan debt in one simple app.” The money will mostly go toward “team growth, marketing and product expansions,” it said.

The company is currently growing 40% month over month, according to Aguilar. Its revenue is obtained through a tiered membership program. It’s free for users to sync loans from their lender and explore forgiveness and repayment options.

Image Credits: Founder & CEO Tony Aguilar / Chipper

Users also have the option to enroll with its premium product, Chipper+, for additional support, auto-enrollment for forgiveness or repayment programs, and access to round-ups for $4 a month. Users also can access the round-ups service on its own for $2/month.

For now, all Chipper services are free until the loan moratorium is lifted on May 1, as borrowers aren’t making payments.

As a first-generation Latinx entrepreneur, CEO Aguilar joined The Cap Table Coalition – an initiative that asks founders to allocate 10% of all their funding rounds to the organization to be distributed to Black, Latinx and other underrepresented investors – when it came time to raise capital. As part of his commitment to giving back to the community, Aguilar is upping that commitment to 25%.

Freestyle Capital, Slauson & Co. and Propel Venture co-led the seed financing. Other backers include investors from the Cap Table Coalition and fintech angels such as Ethan Bloch, founder and CEO of Digit; John Henry, co-founder of Loop; and Craig Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gig Wage.

“This funding will allow us to grow our user base and help borrowers with their student loan journeys from start to finish,” Aguilar said.

Betterment

In February, Betterment revealed a new product focused on student loan management. The 14-year-old company has historically provided robo-advising and cash management services. With its expansion into student loan management, Betterment says that any employee who has a 401(k) retirement plan with the company will be able to view their loans alongside their other financial accounts, receive personalized repayment recommendations and deduct loan payments directly from their paycheck, among other things.

The company says the move was designed with the potential end of the student loan moratorium in mind. Citing a survey that found 93% of borrowers don’t feel prepared to resume payments on May 1, Betterment said that it believes that employers can offer college payment benefits “that address financial stages in their lives” as a perk to help attract and retain talent.

The student loan debt problem is a huge one in this country, and I’m sure we’ll only see more fintechs in time come up with potential solutions to help solve it. Now if we can keep it from perpetuating in the future, we’ll be in good shape.

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