Charlie Javice on How You Can Negotiate To Lower Your College Tuition Costs

Charlie Javice founded her company, Frank, when she realized that there was a gaping hole in the student loan market. Frank is a tech tool that operates similarly to TurboTax, but is instead used to file FAFSA forms, which are what students use to apply for financial aid. 

The site also shares information on the real costs of college (including books, dorm fees and more), and offers a loan program for students waiting on their schools to pay out their financial aid. 

I interviewed Charlie about her company, how you can negotiate for better financial aid at school and what she thinks about Elizabeth Warren’s financial aid plan. 

(Editor’s note: the following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)

Who is Frank designed to help, and how do you do it? 
While many people have resources in high school, there are a lot of forgotten students who are a bit older. That’s where Frank comes in. We work with typically lower income folks, and we help them from the beginning of the process. We found an exciting way to solve a policy issue using technology. FAFSA completion has always been a target for me, because ensuring that it gets completed boosts enrollment outcomes. After about a year and one full financial aid season, we have close to 500,000 clients and $10 billion in aid via grants, student loans and scholarships.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you got involved in this work.
I’m 27. In terms of my own background, I went to college, I got financial aid myself and did a lot of research on jobs and the future of work. People would be taking their first possible job, even if they didn’t want it. The American dream is more or less dead, in my view. 

I started wondering: How do you address financial wellness in the same way you would address healthcare? Why is there no company that’s assisting Americans in the biggest investment decision in their life? All of the data was pointing to an issue with the point of sale of college. Colleges have a huge dropout rate.

Tell me a bit about the Frank Membership program.
When students were filing FAFSA, we were starting to see patterns of support tickets. One of the things would be a question about when you would get your aid. As soon as you enroll is supposed to be the answer. But students weren’t getting the aid. What was wrong is the Higher Education Act makes it take forever for students to get their aid disbursement. 

The program is a short-term cash advance for students who are waiting on their aid packages. We’ve had that in pilot with 1,000 students in the past six months and we’ve been so proud of the students we serve.  Because they pay a flat fee of $20 per month, the product is self-sufficient, we built that into pricing. There’s no payment risk on our end. Because we raised money, it’s equity. We have no acquisition costs. It’s been a great pilot. 

How can you negotiate when it comes to your college tuition?
Schools have an all-time low enrollment rate. If you’re not going to a tier-one top thirty school, you’re in a position to appeal and negotiation your aid. Schools keep 20% of aid off the table for appeals. They try to keep it quiet, but it’s out there. Some schools will bury the link to the appeal forms, while with others, you need to call in. 

You can likely have one school compete against another like a job offer. Tell your school of choice that they are and then ask if they can match your aid package. 

The other ways have to do with if you have a change in your economic situation, which can be anything from having a lower-than-expected bonus to a change in family status, like a birth or a divorce. 

The Hail Mary of it all is just saying “I can’t pay for it, I really want to go, but my cost of living is so high, but if there’s anything you can do, even just a small specific amount of money.”

Now is the best time to do it because you have the best leverage. The best advice I have is to put a file together, don’t be emotional about it and ask for help if you need it. 

What are your thoughts on Elizabeth Warren’s plan to cancel student loan debt? 
It’s really important for people to understand the impact of free college. People are missing the core issue, which is what does the future look like when it comes to our higher education system? Free college can only work when our colleges are not failing students. Less than 50% of college students are graduating. That is a broken system. We should not be pumping money into them. The more money that subsidizes failing institutions is not a good plan. We need to establish what financial need means, and make it easy for aid to be available. We need to fix the structural issues of applying for aid and managing aid.

Similar to Australia, you could take a student loan payment pre-tax out of a paycheck. Structurally, bankruptcy would help a lot. Pre-tax benefits to student loan payments without doing something as aggressive as complete loan forgiveness. I believe everyone should contribute something.

One area that hasn’t been discussed is risk sharing with schools for student outcomes. You should, as a government, only fund successful programs to make successful programs bigger and make unsuccessful programs die.