Today’s fast-paced and Internet-driven society provides a lot of opportunities for innovation in the college financial aid world. As tuition costs continue to rise faster than average incomes, more students are turning to private lenders and other third-party organizations to finance their educations; the Harvard Educational Review estimates that there was a 76% increase in the amount of debt that students attending public four-year colleges faced over time between 1992 and 2004. While the power of online micro-giving has been harnessed to the benefit of entrepreneurs in developing countries (by Kiva, for example, and for K-12 classrooms throughout the country (Donors Choose, for example), American students struggle more than ever with high college costs and have no vehicle to access support from their personal network, community, or individuals nationwide. Co-fund.org consists of an online platform that enables anyone to directly fund students’ unmet tuition need so they can attend and succeed at college.
The Gates Foundation estimates that between 2006 and 2016, nearly 4.5 million students will not pursue college degrees due to the costs of higher education. High school counselors report not having enough financial aid, tuition costs being too high and an unwillingness to borrow as the top three reasons, respectively, why college-ready students do not enroll directly into four-year institutions, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy. These burdens have led to the troubling finding that students from low-income families attend four-year institutions at about half the rate of equally qualified students from high-income families (U.S Education Department’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance). Also troubling is the fact that many low-income college students do not have other types of support needed to navigate the college and financial aid application process, and then to succeed during college itself.
Today, unmet tuition need, or what is referred to as “the gap,” constitutes a high percentage of many students’ expenses. The average unmet need of students with incomes in the lowest quartile is roughly $3,265, according to the American Council on Education. A study by McKinsey estimates that if the gap between low-income students and the rest were closed, the gross domestic product in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion (3% to 5%) higher. The impending failure of our education system to maximize the inherent potential of our nation’s intellectual capital has economic implications that go far beyond the issues of social equity, and this must be addressed in innovative ways.
Scholarships seem numerous, but the applications, deadlines, and impersonal nature of most scholarships hinder their accessibility and effectiveness. Overall, both grants and loans are problematic; two-thirds of grant aid is given as merit-based aid, and research in the American Educational Research Journal indicates this aid does not equalize college participation rates over time or change the impact of income on enrollment patterns. Moreover, individual donors are disenfranchised from directly supporting an individual college student unless they have the legal and financial resources to set up their own scholarship fund. Students are also unable to systematically leverage their personal network, community, or individuals nationwide for support to help fund their college expenses.
Having seen these problems first-hand at my large public high school in North Central Florida, and with a mother who is a professor of education at the University of Florida, I had already wanted to make a difference and help improve college access for deserving students. With that cause in mind, I first conceptualized of what would become CO-Fund while working at a startup in Silicon Valley last summer that also uses a person-to-person fundraising platform. This experience, in addition to internships at a venture capital fund, marketing for an orthopedic device company, and business development for an online job-matching service, had all given me significant experience in what it takes to build and garner support for a high-tech startup.
Following preliminary research and feedback on the idea that summer, I met with old classmates from my Entrepreneurship and Good Work class once back at Brown University in the fall that are also experienced and passionate about education and startups. I began to conduct extensive research and met with dozens of experts in relevant areas to refine the approach and build the team needed to launch and maintain CO-Fund. Our seven-student team and Board of Advisors was in place by the end of the fall, and Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education (RISE) agreed to be our fiscal sponsor, enabling donors to make tax-deductible donations. In the early spring I also secured free legal services from Partridge Snow & Hahn, giving us the legal resources needed to sort through the tax implications of our work and to draw up the necessary contracts and terms.
Fast forward a couple of months and it is evident that our hard work has paid off: We have the website up, reputable partner organizations, our first students profiled and have raised more than $20,000, including winnings and recognition from several business plan competitions. As you can see in the “About Us” section on our website, our team of students, advisors and directors had the determination and skills necessary to bring this initiative to fruition. In the face of the myriad problems that aspiring college students face, CO-Fund has emerged to help deserving students make college more affordable by empowering donors to choose the recipient of their aid (100% of which goes to the students) while circumventing the complicated traditional scholarship process.
So how does CO-Fund help these students exactly? The CO-Fund process is relatively simple. Mentors from partner organizations recommend deserving, college-ready students that need aid to “close the gap” so that they can directly enroll into a four-year institution. Selected students then make online profiles to introduce themselves and their financial challenges and academic, extracurricular and career interests. Visitors to the site can view the profiles and easily donate as little as $1 to the Fellow(s) of choice.
CO-Fund Mentors are members of partnered organizations that work with students who plan to enroll in college, and are responsible for referring and mentoring qualified students to CO-Fund throughout the college application process. Once the student completes a profile, the new CO-Fund Fellow can raise up to $2,500 through CO-Fund to help fund their college tuition. Once this amount is met, or tuition comes due, CO-Fund coordinates with the student’s college financial aid department to disburse the donated funds directly into the student’s tuition account.
As a part of their Fellowship, students also pledge to “pay it forward” to other students and communities like their own by completing one of the pay-it-forward options,” examples of which include working for one of CO-Fund’s partner NGOs for a year after graduation or donating one-fifth of the amount they received through CO-Fund back to other Fellows. In this way, CO-Fund prompts students to find creative solutions to fund their college tuition and improve their communities upon graduation, and donors in a sense are investing in a Fellow and their future actions. Please read our FAQs for more details
CO-Fund expands the tools available to make college more accessible and affordable for low-income students. In the same way that the Internet democratizes access to information, it now has the potential to do the same for the giving and receiving of college scholarships.
Cody Simmons, a student at Brown University, recently founded CO-Fund, America’s College Opportunity Fund, to improve college access for deserving, college-ready students.