Still scrambling to find a holiday gift for your favorite debt-strapped millennial? Something more useful than a sweater or a scarf? You can now offer to help pay off his or her student loan, and it’s probably easier than shopping for whatever hot holiday toy younger kids have their eyes on these days.
Gift of College, a website that parents and relatives can use to help fund children’s college savings accounts — typically a 529 plan, a tax-advantaged college savings vehicle — or pay off their student loans, is now offering gift cards at Toys R Us. Relatives can buy the card for a loved one in increments of $25, $50 or variable amounts up to $500. Then the recipient creates a free account on GiftofCollege.com (if they don’t already have one), redeems the value of the card and puts the money directly toward their student loan or college costs. (Relatives can also give gifts of unlimited amounts by going directly through GiftofCollege.com, instead of buying a gift card.)
The gift cards have been available at Toys “R” Us for a few months, and so far the company is happy with the results, said Wayne Weber, Gift of College’s chief executive, though he declined to release sales figures. The average balance on a card is more than $200, he said, compared with the average gift card balance of $46, according to the National Retail Federation.
“I’m hoping it’s lots of grandparents changing out our gift cards for what used to be the savings bond,” Weber said. He’s no stranger to the challenges of trying to provide relatives with a more financially sound gift than, say, the latest video game. Weber first came up with the idea for Gift of College a few years ago, after struggling to contribute to his nieces’ and nephews’ college savings accounts. Many 529 plans allow for gifts from third parties, but it can often be a complicated process that involves knowing the account number and filling out a specific form.
LoanGifting is on a brief hiatus, according to Ravi Sawhney, the chief executive of RKS, as designers work to retool the site. Sawhney expects the site to come back online in the next month or so with improved features, such as a tool that allows borrowers to see who has opened the email requests they’ve sent, a ping that tells borrowers who has responded to their request as well as a trigger that sends an automatic thank you card.
Though one website can’t transform the systems in place that have led to high college costs, Sawhney sees his site as one way to help students and families cope with the burden they create.
“Education got too expensive, kids got screwed all over the country and there’s nothing that families would love to do more than pay down their kid’s debt,” he said. “We’re that bridge.”
LoanGifting and Gift of College build off an increasingly popular trend of student loan borrowers using online platforms to ask for help paying off their debt from family, friends or even strangers. Over the past two years, donations to education-related campaigns on crowdfunding site GoFundMe, which has been traditionally associated with medical or other financial emergencies, have tripled to more than $100 million during that period, according to the company. GoFundMe capitalized on this interest earlier in 2016, awarding $10,000 in scholarships to 10 users who created education-related campaigns on the site.
“It’s very hard to afford college. The debt burden that kids face when they get out of school is brutal,” Rob Solomon, the chief executive of GoFundMe, said earlier this year. “There is a pocket of help out there, but the rubber really hits the road when you have to pay $100,000 to get through four years of school. A lot of people fall through the cracks.”
Crowdfunding site Indiegogo launched a platform last year, called Generosity, that’s specifically dedicated to fundraising for personal needs and education is one of the more popular categories on the site, Slava Rubin, the company’s co-founder said in an interview last year.
LoanGifting and Gift of College differ from such traditional crowdfunding sites in that they are dedicated solely to student debt and college affordability, and donors’ gifts go directly to the recipient’s college savings plan or student loan servicer, the private company managing the borrower’s repayment process.
“To connect with the servicer is incredibly daunting,” Sawhey said in an interview last year. Indeed, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau noted in a report last year that student loan borrowers often struggle to get all or the right information from their servicers. Sawhey’s company is one of a booming sector of startups connecting donors with student loan servicers to facilitate outside payments to a borrower’s student loan. Most of these firms are focused on working with employers to help them contribute to their workers’ student debt.
The proliferation of these sites and of the employer student loan payback programs are just the latest sign that student debt is becoming a universal American experience — and a business opportunity.
“This is one of those areas that is gaining momentum because of how much student debt there is out there,” Rubin, the Indiegogo co-founder, said of the education-related campaigns on Generosity, the company’s personal fundraising platform, in an interview last year.
The sheer magnitude of student debt — the U.S. has $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt and about 70% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with loans — is what inspired Sawhney, the CEO of RKS, to start looking for ways to make a dent in the crisis. “Really, who is going to step in? It’s going to be the network of friends and family,” he said last year.