A 26-year-old founder has a solution to what Bill Gates calls an 'unnecessary roadblock' to college — and her startup is helping students get thousands off their tuition

Courtesy of FrankFrank CEO and founder Charlie Javice.
  • The outstanding student debt total in the US is $US1.5 trillion, according to figures from the Federal Reserve.
  • The government offers free financial aid to qualifying students, but the application process – called Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA – is arduous.
  • Bill Gates has advocated for a simplified FAFSA process, which currently includes a form with 108 personal and financial questions.
  • Frank is an online FAFSA aid that helps students complete the application process in as little as four minutes. To date, Frank has helped more than 300,000 students receive $US7.5 billion in financial aid.

Student debt is a growing burden among college graduates. Borrowers have a collective $US1.5 trillion in student debt in the United States, according to figures from the Federal Reserve.

There is a way for students to get free financial aid from the government, but the process can be arduous.

In May, billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates published an article advocating for a simplified process of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Gates said the application has 108 questions – three times the length of a standard federal income tax form.

“Without financial aid, many students drop out of school or decide not to go to college at all,” Gates wrote. “At a time when our country needs more college graduates, the financial aid application process has become an unnecessary roadblock on the path to a higher education degree.”

Charlie Javice, a 26-year-old University of Pennsylvania grad, recognised the same problem as Gates. In late 2016 and early 2017, Javice sat with close to 1,000 students in the South Bronx helping them fill out financial aid request forms.

“Just by sitting and counseling all of these students – every story is unique but every problem is kind of a pattern that emerges, and it’s how you can fix a piece of technology and application process that dates back to the 50s,” Javice told Business Insider.

Later, Javice turned her field work into Frank, an online platform she founded that works with students to complete the FAFSA process in as little as four minutes, for free. To date, Frank has helped more than 300,000 students receive $US7.5 billion in financial aid. The average filer who works with Frank receives $US28,000 in aid from the government, Javice said.

“We basically start with your FAFSA and help streamline that process, so it only takes four minutes for you to complete it and you’re less prone to making errors – whether it’s taking a picture of your tax returns or all the help along the way to make it a lot simpler,” Javice said.

“I like to think of Frank as a place that helps students better pay for school and make smarter decisions choosing a school, and everything that comes with financing their education,” Javice said.

Students can explore colleges, file for free federal aid, and get cash advances with Frank

On the website, students can search for colleges and find a complete list of costs, file their FAFSA, and join the membership program.

The $US19.90 a month membership comes with some perks: access to Frank’s financial support team, which can help with scholarship applications; discounts on other memberships, like Spotify; access to a cash advance. It can take up to 60 days to receive financial aid from the government after being approved, Javice said. With Frank’s membership, the company will give students up to $US5,000 to cover tuition and other college costs while they’re waiting, with no interest.

“Picture it like a small business cash advance,” Javice said. “So it’s us believing in the good will of students and the good will of the government to send the students the money eventually.”

Javice’s hands-on approach didn’t stop in the South Bronx. Frank’s team of 18 employees holds weekly focus groups to understand issues college students are facing in day-to-day life.

“It’s not only student debt, but how they budget, how they spend their money, what are they reading, what are they spending their time with, what products they love, what brands they admire, who they hate – so that we know we have our finger on the pulse,” Javice said.

Javice’s continued work to understand student needs is a mission she shares with Gates.

“If we want to give more students the opportunity to go to college, we should meet them where they are,” Gates wrote in his article. “We need to understand the challenges of higher education from their perspective, and that starts by listening to what they have to say.”

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