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This student-loan startup says it has the killer feature to beat big lenders

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

As you've followed the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, you've no doubt heard mention of the student debt crisis. Earnest, a lending startup that refinances student loans and originates personal loans, thinks it can help.

Loan-refinancing may not seem like the sexiest corner of fintech, but it has very recently become very hot: SoFi (Social Finance), which provides student loans, mortgages and other kinds of loans, scored a $1 billion investment from Softbank in September. The startup advertised during the Super Bowl in February. Smaller startups like Zest Finance use big data to aid underwriting for big lenders, while CommonBond focuses on re-financing. Marketplaces like Lending Club (LC) and Lending Tree (TREE) still advertise heavily as the best places to shop for loans. And all of these newer players claim they have the technology to compete with massive incumbents like Sallie Mae (SLM), Wells Fargo (WFC) and JPMorgan (JPM).

Earnest CEO Louis Beryl says his company has the best strategic advantage of all: its recently launched precision pricing. The tool allows an Earnest customer to select any monthly payment on a loan and change it on the fly; the interest rate will adjust to match. That might sound like the kind of simple function that anyone with a student loan should have been able to do already, but no other lenders yet offer it. A traditional lender provides limited choices for the repayment period—typically five, 10, or 15 years' time. An Earnest customer, using a slider on Earnest's web site, can tweak the monthly payment they want to make to, say, $1,000 a month, and Earnest will react accordingly. "$1,000 a month might mean a 10-and-a-half year loan, not a 10-year loan or a 15-year loan," Beryl says. "We'll give that person the interest rate that corresponds to a 10-and-a-half-year loan."

Beryl launched Earnest in 2013. He got the idea for the company after experiencing his own frustrations when he was denied loans in grad school. "I remember thinking, 'Why weren't financial institutions taking the time to understand me more deeply?' And we had a massive technology disruption where all of our accounts were online now." He jumped on the opportunity. Now Earnest is growing so fast that it originated 50 times as many loans in 2015 as it did in 2014. More than 40 million Americans have at least one student loan.

It wasn't so long ago that if you were a student with a loan who wanted to pay more this month than usual, you had to fill out an elaborate form and snail-mail it to the lender just to have the privilege of paying. Behavior has shifted, Beryl says. In an era of mobile banking, young people are attuned to doing their banking without the face-to-face interaction that traditionally would have been involved in something as weighty as refinancing a loan. Earnest, for now, has no app, but will launch one this year.

Earnest says that with its precision pricing tool, clients have saved an average $17,936 after refinancing. But eager fintech-savvy student borrowers, beware: Refinancing isn't for everyone. As Yahoo Finance's Mandi Woodruff has warned, refinancing a student loan can be the wrong move in some cases. Remember that if you lower your monthly payment, it will give you more flexibility -- which is especially helpful if you're having trouble repaying the debt -- but you'll also be extending your loan term and end up paying more over the life of the loan.

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.


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