• 10.10.12

Applying Design Thinking To The Student Loan Nightmare

There’s a lot we need to fix about student loans. will settle for making sure you know where you stand.

Applying Design Thinking To The Student Loan Nightmare

Over the last few years, student loans have become an unavoidable topic of discussion–even for those who don’t have any to pay off themselves. Working out a better system for the financial aid system was one of the Obama administration’s biggest undertakings in its first term, and it’s easy to see why: Over half of the 20 million Americans attending college borrow money to help cover costs, and their loans add up to nearly a trillion dollars of debt altogether. But there are also tiny parts of the process that could benefit greatly from some streamlined thinking and honest design., a site dedicated to organizing and optimizing student loans, wants to be one such solution.


When Brendon Mcqueen graduated from Columbia University in 2009, he left with two things: A degree in film and over $120,000 of debt spread across 12 student loans. That’s a big sum for a new graduate to fathom, but as Mcqueen explains it, the situation was made even more stressful by how disorganized it was at every turn. He was amazed, he told me, at the difficulty of figuring out the most basic questions related to his loans, “the easy parts, like ‘who do I owe cash to,’ ‘how much do I owe them,’ and ‘do I have any options?’ Those three questions were incredibly painful to answer. And it turns out that it’s a super common problem if you have loans.” So Mcqueen decided to put the film career on hold and come up with a tool for his fellow borrowers–a website that would lay out all of a user’s loans as simply as possible and offer them some concrete options on how to pay them back.

The first version of the site, Mcqueen admits, was very rough around the edges. But his hunch about the need for better loan management tools was validated by the fact that early users didn’t really seem to care. “Even though it was so ugly,” he told me, “people loved it. It was weird.” That first version of the site was a significantly more ambitious undertaking, encompassing the frustrating first stages of finding and applying for loans as well as keeping track of them all after the fact. Eventually, Mcqueen and his partner decided it was wiser to scale back and focus solely on helping people who were trying to pay back the loans they already had.

“At a point early on, for any entrepreneur,” Mcqueen told me, “you’re thinking huge. And that’s great. But sometimes you need to say, ‘Okay, well that’s not actually possible right now, and I overshot, and I overpromised, and let’s try to focus on the core here of helping people get organized.”

Offering that help, he explained, requires above all else “clarity and simplicity.” The site, which is currently in private beta with invites going out soon, lets users add their various loans and view things like monthly payment amounts, interest rates, and overall balances with a series of simple charts. Just having all this information in one place, Mcqueen says, is hugely helpful.

But the site goes a bit further: One component the founder’s especially excited about is a section that gives borrowers some options for optimizing their loans. Here, users are asked to fill out a detailed but straightforward questionnaire, with questions like ‘are you the head of your household,’ ‘are you a teacher,’ and the like. The site then uses those answers to assess the individual’s eligibility for a number of relief programs, many of which, Mcqueen points out, most people don’t even know exist.

The “surprise,” he says, is that when you’re done filling out the questions, the answers you supplied are used to fill out the application forms for those programs automatically. Once you find out what you’re eligible for, has already done a good deal of the grunt work for you if you choose to pursue them. It’s a simple solution to one of the biggest problems with the whole loan process: the seemingly endless gauntlet of forms and paperwork borrowers are faced with.


Mcqueen’s rationale for is simple: Student loans aren’t fun, and he figures that “any time you need to handle something that isn’t fun, whoever’s in charge of that experience should try to make it as pleasant as possible.” It’s a dictum that he thinks should be evident to other personal finance services across the board. But when it comes to other services and tools for managing money, it’s about more than just providing a slick website–there needs to be a clarity of purpose, too. Things like Mint are definitely moving in the right direction, Mcqueen thinks, but they need to focus not only on being attractive but on making their utility clear. “There’s so much happening on that homepage,” he says of that site, “everytime I’m on there, I’m like ‘I don’t know what to do.'”

We’ll undoubtedly be hearing a lot more about student loans as we near the election in November, and it’s hard to imagine the topic disappearing from the national conversation any time soon. But shows how small solutions that tackle discrete parts of that greater process can result in a lot more peace of mind than you might think.

You can put your name down for an invite on

[Image: Dollars via Shutterstock]