That sounds pretty ordinary. College aid web sites seem like a dime a dozen. But Sacramento, Calif.-based Rezolve has done something special. It takes your income levels, school choices, and projected attendance dates to come up with custom calculations. The company will send you a 50-page report (via PDF on email or on paper) within a week of when you order a copy and fill out your personal information.
That personalized service and the huge effort it has invested in its technology makes the company stand out. Rezolve has raised $25 million and hired 100 employees who have written three million lines of code over the past two years. (For those who don’t know, some very sophisticated programs, and even operating systems, don’t require 3 million lines of code). The result is a site that scours college data and creates a personal plan for each student. The web site goes live today, after testing with 28,000 families.
While most college aid or advice sites are free, StudentAid.com will charge its users a $49 fee to produce a report that suggests and compares 10 different colleges that are right for a particular student. If you seek a consultation with an expert advisor, that costs $99. The company is charging money because it doesn’t take ads, and it says it doesn’t do that because it wants to be completely trusted by its customers. A typical report on 10 colleges can run 50 pages.
Craig Carroll (pictured right), chief executive of Rezolve, says that fee is justified by the high quality of information you get in multi-page personal reports. In an interview, he said that’s what it takes to demystify college for students so they can make the best possible choices.
“The key challenge is that so many students and families are required to apply for colleges without understanding the out-of-pocket costs,” Carroll said. “We provide a way to understand the net costs, after accounting for student aid.”
He compares it to the way people can shop for cars on the Internet now, comparing values and getting an idea for local market prices. In the past, people had so little information that car dealers held a lot of power and the amount that people paid for cars varied widely.
Today, students are just as ignorant about the intersection of college costs, their own academic goals, the chances for financial aid, and the family’s ability to pay for school. That’s a bad situation because, next to the purchase of a home, college is the biggest expense people will face in their lives.
And most parents have a ton of fear and anxiety over how they are going to make ends meet while paying for their kids’ education. A cottage industry has grown up to address this fear. There are some 5,000 educational consultants around the country, with an average fee of around $1,500. Compared to those consultants — who most likely do not have 3-million lines of code for processing college choices — StudentAid.com is quite affordable, Carroll says.
“We charge you half the cost of a new pair of sneakers and you get information about the biggest financial expense of your life,” he says.
Carroll contends that free college tuition estimators and scholarship search engines offer generic advice that varies little from student to student. Sites such as Fastweb.com can give students information about $2 billion or $3 billion worth of scholarships, but the aggregate total of government and private aid for students is about $148 billion, which is distributed through nine federal programs and 605 state student aid programs.
Carroll said his army of experts has gathered much of that data since the company’s founding so that it can offer advice based on more than $100 billion in available aid. StudentAid.com asks its visitors to fill out online forms with a lot of personal data, or to tell the information to its customer support advisors over the phone. Those are some big hurdles, in addition to the fees. The company has sample reports and a video of its service to help customers understand what they’re getting, but it doesn’t have a free version of the service to entice consumers into spending their money. There are a couple of unannounced partnerships with a couple of Fortune 500 companies that may help the company get the word out.
Carroll said the data is better than other services because StudentAid.com has processed data from the choices of 600,000 college students who made specific choices in real life. That knowledge is built into the company’s recommendation engine for suggesting colleges. The suggestions are important because there are 6,005 colleges in the U.S. The net cost estimates include information about the cost of non-school expenses such as housing, both on campus or off campus. It can also make estimates for inflation at specific college campuses, so that people can do their estimates years ahead of the time when they have to pay for the costs.
The results of college searches and suggestions can be illuminating. Attending Stanford University for one year could cost an average of $54,424 in net costs by 2011. But the average aid is more than $22,691, knocking down the out-of-pocket costs for the year considerably to around $31,733. By comparison, the University of California at Berkeley costs $28,708 a year to attend, with the average aid award of $7,708 knocking the cost down to about $21,000.
Beyond dispensing such intelligence, StudentAid.com has other ways to make money. A new law mandates that every college establish a net cost calculator on their web sites by the fall of 2011. StudentAid.com may license its calculator to colleges so they can comply with the law.
The company was founded in March, 2007, and raised its funding in a single round from FTV Capital in San Francisco and a group of angel investors. Carroll previously started a youth marketing agency and another company called EGRAD, which advised college graduates on making the transition to the post-college life.
It is a very interesting bet. Even those we are in the age of faceless advice dispensed by thousands of so-called experts on the Internet, StudentAid.com is counting on a concierge-like personal touch.