Presently, CommonBond, which has 68 employees mostly in New York City, refinances loans for students at virtually any reputable U.S. college or university, and it also offers loans to MBA students studying at 20 high-tier business schools. Klein says the average refinancing savings is $15,000.
CommonBond has raised nearly $580 million in funding for loans, largely from major institutional investors. When Klein and his team launched the company in 2012, they hit up Wharton alumni to fund student loans, and raised $2.5 million in a pilot run. “One of the things we learned from that pilot was it takes a long time and a lot of effort for small check sizes if we were going to focus on individual investors exclusively,” Klein says. “We would go after institutional investors who can write larger checks.”
However, Klein plans to bring the company back in touch with its roots in the next year or two, by enabling individual investors, he says. “When I think about the very first inspiration of this platform, I had envisioned it as anyone in America could invest any amount on this platform to invest in the education of any individual or group of individuals. That to me is a really empowering idea.”
MIGHT UNCLE SAM RISE TO THE COMPETITION?
These three MBA-launched financial services firms are making piles of money in large part because at a time of steadily increasing tuition across the U.S. for all degrees, when higher education is becoming increasingly important for obtaining a job, the federal government student loan program is over-priced and under-serviced. Conceivably, Congress could move to improve the government’s offering, but a series of bills intended to do that – focused on tying interest to current market rates – have gone nowhere in the face of opposition from Republicans concerned about loss of revenue.
And while the big banks see gold in student loan refinancing, the trend among them is away from doing it themselves, and instead into investing in loans via new refi companies and other online lending startups. JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Citigroup have all pulled out of direct student loan refinancing, says Klein of CommonBond, which in January 2016 announced it had received $275 million in lending capital from investors including Barclays bank and Macquarie Capital, a banking and financial services company.
Another quality the three MBA startups share is their recent presence in the marketplace – all founded after the financial crisis. “Of course, we’re in somewhat of a benign credit environment now,” says Macklin of SoFi, “so it’s impossible to say how SoFi would do during a downturn because we haven’t been in one yet.
“We believe that our credit model is extremely strong and robust and we’re very confident in its ability to hold up in a downturn. We’re lending to people whom we think can pay back that money.”
In related news, the much, much smaller student loan refinancing outfit Lendedu has released a video in which people with student loans are asked about them – many interviewees respond with deep and amusing ignorance.
The Top 100 MBA Startups of 2016: