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A new digital tool for finding financial aid

Mortarboard with price tag

Tess Vigeland: The college class of 2015 has pretty much decided at this point which campus they'll be moving to in the fall. Now, they're trying to figure out how to pay for it. Sure there are plenty of websites and books to help answer that question. But another somewhat unorthodox source jumped into the fray this year: MTV. The music channel, along with the College Board, sponsored a contest designed to simplify the financial aid process. Joining us to talk about that contest is Jason Rzepka, a vice president at MTV. Welcome to the program.

Jason Rzepka: Thanks for having me, Tess.

Vigeland: Tell us a little bit about this challenge. What were you hoping to get out of it?

Rzepka: Certainly. So the challenge that we ran was part of a bigger campaign run by Viacom and the Gates Foundation called Get Schooled. And this is a five-year campaign to increase high school completion rates, increase college preparedness and increase college completion rates. We at MTV have been really focused on the issue of college affordability.

Vigeland: Yeah, hard to complete college if you can't afford it.

Rzepka: Absolutely. So we went out to our audience nationwide, current and aspiring college students, and said, 'Give us a great idea for a digital tool that'll make it easier to find money for college.'

Vigeland: And for all their efforts, what does the winner get?

Rzepka: So the winner of our college affordability challenge is going to get a $10,000 prize, and they're also going to see their idea brought to life by a $100,000 development budget and launched with the full backing and weight of MTV and the College Board. And the hope is that we'll be ready to introduce it no later than late fall or early winter.

Vigeland: That is one nice prize. All right, well let's talk with the winner: Devin Valencia is 22 years old, a recent graduate of UNLV in Las Vegas. Hi Devin.

Devin Valencia: Hi.

Vigeland: Congratulations.

Valencia: Thank you so much.

Vigeland: What was your reaction when you first heard about this contest? Obviously, you must agree that financing college is a big issue for your peers.

Valencia: Yeah, I'm a first-generation college attendee, so my parents really had no idea where to help me start, and I myself had no idea where to start. So I kind of had to do everything on my own. So it really motivated me to think of a new digital tool, accessible to all students that don't have the access of, you know, knowing where to start to find financial aid.

Vigeland: Well tell us about your winning project. What does it do? What is it?

Valencia: It's called Connect Fund, and basically what it is is a Facebook application. And it helps students connect to grants and loans, and it also connects students with scholarships based on their demographic information that's provided through Facebook. So for example, say I'm into hiking. It will match me specifically with scholarships that have to do with hiking. And it also has a discussion board where students can chat with each other about financial aid.

Vigeland: Jason, what do you think it was about this particular idea from Devin that your voters responded to?

Rzepka: Well I think that one, it's a really elegant solution. So if you're going to set out to find scholarships, you have to fill out page after page of information in terms of where you live and your ethnicity and your major. We've now taken all that barrier away because it's taking the data directly from a Facebook profile. And the other thing that this does is it's the first ever social tool for financial aid. And we know that our audience will always turn to their friends first as a resource to support each other.

Vigeland: Well you know, with all the applications and other help that you can find on Facebook, I am astonished that something like this wasn't already out there. I guess Devin, you were really filling a niche that needed to be filled.

Valencia: Yeah there's no educational outlet out there on the social media networks, so I thought, why not combine them both, since students are already there?

Vigeland: Absolutely. So what are you going to do with this $10,000?

Valencia: I actually have this student loan that I need to pay off, so I think I'm probably going to use some of the money toward that.

Vigeland: That's not very exciting, is it?

Valencia: No, it's exciting because I won't have that weight of having to pay that off.

Vigeland: Absolutely. What are you planning to do? What do you want to do with your degree?

Valencia: Well I graduated with my bachelor's in psychology, and I want to get my master's in psychology. And hopefully have my own practice one day, or something with social helping.

Vigeland: Social helping and social media, maybe?

Valencia: Yes.

Vigeland: Fantastic. Well Devin Valencia, best of luck to you and congratulations.

Valencia: Thank you so much.

Vigeland: And Jason Rzepka, thanks so much for talking with us, and congrats on finishing the challenge.

Rzepka: Thanks so much for having us.

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