Seeing an opportunity to mitigate the growing problem of student loan debt, student finance companies such as SimpleTuition and Sallie Mae are expanding debt management offers, including the use of card payment rewards.
"Student loan debt has become a big part of our society. About a year ago, we started thinking about what we could to impact that debt, not just with tools and resources, but with a product that would allow people to do something," says Patrick Kandianis, co-founder of SimpleTuition, a Boston-based company.
SimpleTuition's SmarterBucks rewards program has added a new feature that allows friends and familyor SmarterBucks giftersto turn card payment rewards into extra loan payments on a recipient's student loan.
Gifters can use the online SmarterBucks Marketplace to earn 2%-16% back in rewards on purchases made with a SmarterBank Visa debit card. SimpleTuition and SmarterBank are not banksthe accounts are managed by Bancorp, a Wilmington, Del.-based bank and card issuer.
Once each month, rewards are transferred to the recipient and paid directly to the lender of that person's student loan. SimpleTuition is planning further enhancements, such as expanded direct deals with merchants, and perks for engaging with merchants or products on social networking sites such as Facebook.
Other companies also target debt reduction. Some use gaming and goal-setting to encourage people to pay down debt. Dodge offers a registry that allows friends and family to "sponsor" part of a car for a buyer.
SmartyPig, a prepaid card provider, has a similar tool for people trying to save up for a specific purchase. It allows users to solicit contributions from friends and to share their progress on social media.
SimpleTuition is exploring ways to allow consumers to engage with the site and with one another.
"We want to turn it into more of a social community than it is now, we want to get it to a point where we may introduce challenges to see 'who saved the most this month' or 'who had the biggest pay down this month,'" says Kandianis. The company will likely build its own community for these purposes rather than weave into an existing social network, he says.
Sallie Mae, which has offered cash-back rewards for about ten years under the Upromise brand, recently upgraded the payment rewards program by using Barclaycard's card technologya move that's allowed Sallie Mae to expand the Web capabilities of its programs, as well as enable greater mobile access. Barclays in 2012 purchased a $1.3 billion Sallie Mae credit card portfolio from Bank of America, part of B of A's larger downsizing of its card-issuing business.
Upromise allows family members to earn cash back for college through purchases with the Upromise World MasterCard. Debit card purchases are also eligible.
Additionally, Sallie Mae customers with a Smart Option student loan can receive rewards for on-time payments that go into their Upromise accountwhich can be used to pay down a Sallie Mae loan, transferred into a Sallie Mae savings account or turned into a check to pay for expenses such as books. There's no annual fee for the card, no cap on earnings and no minimum spend requirements.
The new digital enhancements improve the range of features that allow people to monitor spending and payments, track balances, and view progress toward paying student debt. Sallie Mae didn't provide specific uptake numbers, but the number of grandparents and parents participating in the program is increasing, says Debby Hohler, a Sallie Mae spokeswoman.
"The mobile app is helpful to consumers in that it gives them quick access to information that helps them make spending decisions," Hohler says. "We want to encourage people to make good decisions as they save and pay for education, and one of the most important ways we can do that is by providing instant access to information so they can have a clear view into their spending habits."