Student loan debt in the United States was $1.3 trillion in 2017, yet many borrowers aren’t even aware of how much or to whom they owe money, according to Dough, a student startup focused on taking the mystery out of student loans.
Dough was founded by University of Michigan graduate students Catalina Kaiyoorawongs and Yahya Bajwa after they received a U-M Dow Sustainability Fellows grant, which supports student-led projects that foster sustainability at the local, regional, national or global levels.
Dough won U-M’s Innovation in Action competition in the Education category in March, and will receive a $50,000 equity investment from Kyyba Innovations after winning the Detroit Fintech Challenge competition earlier this month.
“Our goal is to see default decrease,” Kaiyoorawongs said. “Dough is a personalized and simplified educational platform that aims at reducing student loan default. It’s a web and mobile platform. We don’t want students to have to download anything, because it’s just another barrier.”
Dough will send enrolled students text messages with information, links to videos teaching them financial skills and sticky messages alerting them to new tutorials posted.
Loan default occurs when a former student fails to pay on a federal student loan. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the national default rate was 11.5 percent for students in fiscal year 2014, increasing from fiscal year 2013’s rate of 11.3 percent.
Initially, the team thought of creating a budgeting app, but through the IIA process they decided to focus on the problem instead of the solution. What they found was that students lacked the ability to understand how loan decisions would impact their future finances.
“We interviewed undergraduate seniors here and they didn’t even know what their loans were or who their lenders were,” Bajwa said. “Students are just relying on the brand of the University of Michigan to get a good job.”
Bajwa and Kaiyoorawongs noticed that many budgeting apps still drive consumption by offering consumers coupons or special deals. Instead of facilitating consumption, they hope to influence student saving habits and provide more financial information, specifically the maximum amount of debt that is safe to borrow.
“We don’t define financial literacy as a part of basic literacy that children need,” Kaiyooragwongs said. “We need to redefine what literacy means.”
If funding allows for further development, the team hopes Dough will be completely functioning within the next three years, with 40 to 50 universities using it as the front end of their financial aid system, Bajwa said.
“Ultimately, we’d like to create an education platform that transforms the way students understand their financial well-being,” he said. “They should be aware of their finances and need to know this information to be empowered agents of their future. They can’t do it without financial literacy.”
The Innovation in Action program challenges students to solve problems in public health and education. Panels of experts choose winners at an annual competition, with two separate events organized by the School of Public Health and School of Education. Other winning IIA innovations this year promote safe sex, improve mental health on college campuses and provide personalized tutoring.