When College junior Kenneth Lac was applying to college, he had to fill out all of his financial aid applications himself — his parents, first-generation immigrants, did not speak enough English to be able to complete the forms.
When his mother lost her job at the start of last semester, Lac had to renegotiate his financial aid by himself, a process he described as "a struggle" that made tasks like buying textbooks for class and applying for study abroad programs extremely complicated.
"Life is on hold when money is on hold," Lac said.
In launching her startup Frank, 2013 Wharton graduate Charlie Javice set out to help people exactly like Lac.
Founded in 2016, Javice's company is a 20-person startup that aims to reduce student debt by advocating for better initial financial aid, rather than saddling college graduates with large student loans.
Javice said Frank has saved an average of $7,000 in tuition for each student who has used the service. Since its launch, Frank has worked with over 200,000 families, according to the website.
Frank seeks to minimize the cost of college in two ways — by assisting with the "difficult" federal financial aid application process and negotiating with college financial aid offices to get more aid for students.
Javice founded Frank to make higher education more affordable after her own struggles renegotiating financial aid at Penn.
“The concept of the American Dream is really dead if you look at student debt,” Javice said. "I grew up in a household where my parents were always very much saying 'If you love what you do you will become something and be someone if you work hard enough at it,' and that just isn't true for most of America because of student debt."
Any student applying for financial aid begins by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and Frank helps those students in a manner similar to how TurboTax helps people file their taxes.
The company also offers an aid appeal service that helps students renegotiate their aid packages, with “the lowest tuition guaranteed.”
“You should never accept the first aid offer that you get,” said Javice, who described her "frustrating" experience dealing with her own financial aid. As an undergraduate at Penn, Javice undertook an appeal for better financial aid and learned how time-consuming the process can be for families. The "back and forth" with Penn's financial aid office to negotiate for more aid, though ultimately successful, took a semester, and happened every year with every new aid award.
“It’s grueling, it’s emotional,” Javice said, adding that her mother was "in tears" during several phone conversations with the financial aid office.
"That doesn't help the administrator get the information out of you," Javice said. "We work with you and make sure they get someone professional on the other side."
According to Director of Communications in the Division of Finance Paul Richards, though, Penn Student Financial Services has never worked with the company before.
Frank has already attracted significant interest from investors, and recently raised $10 million in funding. Frank’s new lead investor is 1985 Wharton MBA graduate Marc Rowan.
At Penn, Javice was involved with Wharton’s Social Impact Initiative, as well as its Entrepreneurship Center. She also founded the non-profit PoverUP, a microfinance and investment platform for students to alleviate poverty.
Currently, Frank is expanding its student outreach, with plans to create work-study positions and services to help students apply for state aid and scholarships.
“That’s really what Frank’s about," Javice said. "Enabling people to pursue their dreams and not let student debt hinder them.”
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