Decoding GradRight’s mission to transform financing for higher education
Aman Singh and Sasidhar Sista have known each other since 2012 when they were part of the founding team of Ashoka University, the foremost liberals arts and science university in India.
During their myriad travels through India, West Asia and Southeast Asia, the duo noticed the information asymmetry for students pursuing their academic aspirations. It had to do with finance for higher studies.
With limited guidance, students shy away from banks as they are unsure if their requests for loans will get accepted. Meanwhile, banks lose out on applicants and universities lose on enrolments.
Motivated by a vision to bridge the gap between education and financing, and to bring students and banks together on a single platform, Aman and Sasidhar startedalong with a group of like-minded individuals, many of whom were friends and former colleagues.
GradRight recommends the most suitable loans offered by leading banks and NBFCs to a student based on his/her academic profile. What's more, as the lending institutions bid for applicants, the students get some of the lowest rates of interest.
To avail of the finance options, students have to create a detailed profile about their future plans and requirements. GradRight then assists the students in evaluating loans offered by public/private banks and NBFCs and in deciding the best options based on the students’ profile. Once, they've made their choice, they can complete all formalities online and access the funds.
The portal makes the process of securing a loan transparent and enables students to get funding in as quick as two days.
A national and global problem for ‘middle-order’ students and parents
The GradRight model was cognizant of the absence of networks and resources. “Barring the top 5%, most other students struggle to choose their best funding options,” says Aman Singh, Co-Founder, GradRight. “When they like a college, they might not always get the course of their choice. Even if they do get the course of their choice, it's not always in their preferred college. And if they get both, the programme is sometimes too expensive and they're unable to get the right funds because the college and programme are 'non-fundable' for banks.”
Inevitably, students get confused and run from one counsellor and bank to another to find the right programme and the required funds. Globally, the cost of education loans has been spiralling up.
In 2020, education debt in the USA was recorded as USD 1.71 trillion and exceeded the combined value of credit card and auto loans granted during the period, while in the UK, the figure was recorded as USD 140 billion in March 2020. In Canada, education debt has been growing rapidly from USD 18.2 billion in 2017.
“As India aims to boost its gross enrollment ratio from 25% to 50% over the next decade, the country is seeing an increased participation from private institutions that offer expensive degrees. A typical private undergraduate degree can set one back by Rs 15 lakh to Rs 40 lakh per year,” says Sasidhar Sita, Co-Founder, GradRight.
“Similarly, an MBA degree can cost anywhere from Rs 12 to 40 lakh. Estimates suggest that the outstanding education loans in India will rise from Rs 1.12 lakh crore to Rs 9 lakh crore in the next 10 to 15 years. For a country like ours, it is a significant problem in the making.”
Getting to the root of the problem with design research
With generous support from Quicksand Design, a pioneering social impact-focused, design research firm, the GradRight team undertook a design research exercise to meet hundreds of students, teachers, deans, bankers and donors who could sponsor higher education for underprivileged students. The insights from this exercise became the cornerstone for development of GradRight.
“We saw how these students were always unsure about how things would pan out and if the banks would entertain their loan applications. Students usually approached the banks at the fag-end of the process, after they had received admissions and were left with limited time to negotiate for best rates. They never knew if the offer they got from a bank was the best one,” says Shivani Mani, Lead-People Partnerships, GradRight.
“Banks lost candidates after going through the whole process of documentation, credit processing if the student got a better offer from another bank. On the other hand, universities lost students after offering admissions because they could not get the funds in time. We realised that the answer lay in a platform that brought students and banks together,” explains Aayush Nagpal, Lead-Banking Partnerships, GradRight.
Birth of an Ed-FinTech Company
With student-centric design research as its anchor, GradRight launched FundRight where 12 domestic and international banks and NBFCs compete transparently to offer the best loan products. The banks and NBFCs choose the students on the basis of their own credit policies, students’ profile and college choices.
FundRight is complemented by SelectRight, a financial data-driven college selection tool that helps students get a complete picture of the total cost, returns, payback period and ‘fundability’ of each programme. “This helps in saving a lot of time and effort for banks and students given that students now approach banks only after choosing and getting selected for a ‘fundable’ programme," says Hasil, Lead-Growth, GradRight.
The platform was launched in November 2019 and had just started to gain traction when COVID-19 upended the world order. Students who were using the platform had to pause their study plans and many deferred it to 2021. “The GradRight team took voluntary cuts in their salaries and leveraged their limited resources to strengthen the platform, stitching up new partnerships, and waiting for the tide to turn. The team emerged stronger as the situation became better,” says Manonita, Lead- Talent Management, GradRight.
Since travel restrictions were relaxed in October 2020, the platform witnessed rapid growth in just a couple of months. Students from 1,000+ cities are now using GradRight to apply for loans to the lender of their choice, irrespective of whether the lenders are located in India or outside. With 5,000+ registered applicants, GradRight saw the value of cumulative loan requests on its platform cross Rs 1,600 crore in a short span of time. “We went on to grow at 76% month-on-month. Till April 2021, the platform has facilitated loans of over Rs 150 crore,” says Lovish Rawal, Lead-Outreach, GradRight.
GradRight was recognised as the most innovative FinTech company in the higher education financing space of the FinTech Innovation Challenge by HSBC and the central government. It won the challenge for creating a transparent, student-centric ecosystem that is addressing a global problem and enhancing global mobility of students.
Democratising access to top quality education
The team is inspired by the stories of impact that it is driving every day. Students and their parents, who have used GradRight, are loving it. Raghav Adlakha, who bagged an admission to Harvard Kennedy School in 2020, says, “Anyone considering graduate student loans should seriously check out GradRight. I came across a bevy of options from different banks and it led me to consider options I would not have found otherwise! Their competitive bidding platform has helped students get cheaper loans and save students anywhere from Rs 2- 23 lakhs over the loan cycle.”
Aastha (name changed), who is attending a university that’s ranked 150th by the QS World University Rankings, said she had almost given up on her dream of studying abroad after she lost her father and had to rely on her mother and grandparents for support.
Things began to look up when she posted her profile on GradRight. The platform leveraged the strength of her academic profile to negotiate and secure a loan from a private bank. This helped Aastha move ahead with her dreams of pursuing a master’s degree from the US.
Raj (name changed), a student from a remote town in Bihar, had been struggling to finance his degree in sustainability. He had to travel between 60 and 70 kms to reach the nearest bank. The GradRight team intervened and ensured he got a loan sanctioned from a leading private bank, without even having to meet any bank executive in person.
A globally scalable solution
“GradRight is already the preferred sales and service partner for all its collaborative NBFCs and banks. Banks attribute GradRight in helping them cut upto 75% of the cost of sales and pre-disbursement services. Its proprietary credit model is poised to enhance the value of its services and position it as the preferred engine for education loans for all its partners. The platform is highly scalable and can be replicated across countries,” says Sasidhar.
The team has raised Rs 8 crore in a Pre-Series A round of funding from a close network of investors in the US and is all set for its next phase of growth. It has partnered with over 22 top test preparation and counselling companies which give it access to over 1,00,000 students planning to study abroad.
The team has grown from just 12 members to 45 over the last two months, and the number is expected to cross 100 by the end of the year. “We are preparing to launch the platform internationally to add value to students in countries where they struggle to find the best loans,” says Ashirwad Singh, Lead-Technology, GradRight, while talking about GradRight's future plans.
For this team, the journey to enable students’ education dreams globally has just begun.