This is the tenth piece in Fast Forward’s 2018 Accelerator Series featuring Peerlift, the platform connecting underserved high schoolers to micro-scholarships for college.
After winning a collective half a million dollars in scholarship funds, a group of high schoolers found themselves in Atlanta attending a scholarship conference. At the time, the group had no idea that the connections they’d make with each other would evolve into a partnership as Co-Founders of Peerlift, the platform connecting students to much-needed micro-scholarships for college.
The need for Peerlift is vast; two thirds of students at American community colleges struggle to pay for food, and among low-income, first-generation students, finances are the number one concern in college. This doesn’t just encompass tuition or room and board – small expenses like food, travel, and books make a huge impact.
The Big Idea
70% of students who drop out of college do so due to financial hardship. Peerlift eases the burden students face by activating access to micro-scholarships.
Leveling the Playing Field
Sam Gorman went to a huge high school, where the student to guidance counselor ratio was 500:1. For students, this meant less than 5 minutes a year with a guidance counselor, leaving them in the dark about getting to, and affording, college. But Sam pushed through, applying for scholarships like it was his job. “I was able to win scholarships, but only at extreme lengths,” Sam said. “I’d be working as an English tutor while in five AP classes, staying up till three a.m. searching scholarships online.”
After winning $28,000 in outside scholarship money to attend Stanford, Sam wanted to level the playing field by helping other students access scholarship resources. He and a friend wrote a 24 page scholarship guide, and passed out copies to all of the juniors in their high school. Students loved the handout. Before Sam knew it, students across state lines were asking for their own versions. Sam was thrilled and began producing versions for different regions, calling them “Next Steps” guides.
Increasing Access to Critical Information
By sheer coincidence, Jerry Registre was also producing college guidebooks full of information, advice, and opportunities for the students in his high school. He wanted to provide all students with the tools to take ownership of their futures – tools he had to fight for. Because Jerry’s family had to start their lives anew when they immigrated to the US a decade ago, Jerry said, “I saw education as the ticket out. This made college a natural next step for me, but I knew that my sole option to get there would be to win scholarships to fund my education.”
Jerry got to work, researching and applying to scholarships ad nauseam. He won enough money to afford his tuition at Harvard, truly a dream come true. In the midst of his relief, Jerry couldn’t help but think about all of the students whose trajectories wouldn’t look the same because of a lack of access and information.
Navigating a Broken System Alone
Like Sam, Julie Chen attended a big public high school. Julie remembers, “I rarely got to see my counselor. And even when I did, it wasn’t helpful.” This presented challenges to the scholarship research process, which was compounded by the fact that Julie’s parents barely spoke English. They’d moved to the U.S. from China right before she was born. “I was really grateful they moved to the U.S., leaving their family and friends, to give me a better education. But once my family was here, it was all up to me to make the education a reality. I knew I needed to live up to my parents’ sacrifices,” she said.
Julie, who was driven to seek out opportunities and go to college, spent late hours working on a spreadsheet adding every type of scholarship she could possibly apply for. “It took hours. I was lucky I didn’t have younger siblings to look after and that my parents were really healthy,” Julie recalls. “I was afforded the time to look for scholarships and made it to University of Pennsylvania, but not everyone has that opportunity. Even after graduating, there are so many things that I wish I’d known or wish I’d done to help me pursue what I wanted to do,” Julie said. “I missed out on a lot of opportunities, even after spending hundreds of hours on research.”
Fighting for a More Equitable System
Sravya Alla became the first person in her family to attend school in the U.S. after her parents immigrated 20 years ago. “It was very daunting,” Sravya said, “My parents had no idea how to navigate the American school system.” In response, Sravya developed robust independence. “In first grade, I’d sign my own permission slips and even set up a lemonade stand to earn money for lunch,” she remembers. This independence persisted throughout high school, as Sravya struggled to make college a reality. “I spent hundreds of hours researching different opportunities for colleges, frustrated and alone.”
Sravya’s college aspirations became a reality when she was accepted into University of Pennsylvania, but some of Sravya’s friends who came from low-income, first-generation backgrounds weren’t as fortunate. “They simply didn’t have the time to dedicate hundreds of hours to the college search,” she said. “They were busy with part-time jobs and siblings to take care of on their own. I want to change that system so no other student has to forego their life-long dreams.”
The Exceptions to the Rule Take Action to Change Student Trajectories
“With 51% of public high school students coming from low-income homes, something needed to be done,” Sravya said. Which is why when Sam, Julie, and Sravya met at the scholarship conference, they decided to do something about it. They soon met Jerry, who was helping students in his community, and the four decided to pursue building Peerlift, a platform dedicated to increasing access to college opportunity.
Peerlift started out as an opportunity platform, aggregating scholarships and resources for students across the country. Students like Amira Chow., an immigrant who moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 2012. Though Amira’s family was experiencing great financial difficulty, Amira was determined to make it to college and figure out how to pay for it herself. “Accessing higher education resources was a topic my high school counselors rarely discussed,” she recounts. “Their main goal was to get students to graduate.”
“I found the college search filled with uncertainty, anxiousness, and confusion,” Amira said. But she persisted, and thanks to her unrelenting effort and the ease of Peerlift, was accepted into a university. Once there, the unexpected college costs were overwhelming. Some of the costs Amira encountered were technology fees, health insurance, class specific fees, summer storage, and even printing.
The Pivot to Increase Opportunity Across the Country
Peerlift has come a long way since the platform’s 2017 launch, with 35,000+ unique site visitors and partnerships with 13 of the largest scholarship providers and education organizations. Now, Peerlift is pivoting from their original search tool to a new product that empowers anyone to start a micro-scholarship themselves. “At a certain point,” Sam said, “we realized there weren’t as many scholarships as there should be on the platform or anywhere else. That’s why we made a shift to micro-scholarships – creating more pools of money for students.”
With micro-scholarships, anyone can put up small amounts of money to create a scholarship for non-tuition expenses in minutes. Students whose interests and abilities match the opportunity can easily apply via video essay, which reduce barriers to entry. “The point of video applications is that they’re not perfect,” Julie said. “You might not have the most polished answer, but a video gets at passion and personal connection.’” With most existing scholarships, students that need the most support are at a disadvantage. Traditional applications are complicated and time-extensive. While more affluent students are able to hire coaches and prep services, low-income students are often alone in the process.
“We redesigned our scholarship platform to benefit the students that need support the most. To be accessible to students who may not be the highest achieving with ample access to resources. With micro-scholarships, we don’t only want to increase the scholarship supply, we want to increase access too,” Sam said. “I’m excited to put students in the driver’s seat again.”
Peerlift is the Helping Hand Students Need
Peerlift is gearing up to launch a pilot with a major university in the coming weeks, enabling alumni to create micro-scholarships. “It’s something that the world simply needs, and I’m happy to have Peerlift fill that need,” Jerry said. “In 5 years I see us being a marketplace connecting donors and students and providing 10x value to each party while making the most impact possible,” Sravya shared.
Jerry sees Peerlift as the tool that will equalize access to information and provide hope for hard working students. “It’s easy to talk about fighting through a confusing system you don’t understand, and ultimately finding opportunities to improve your family’s livelihood, but it’s not easy to live through it” he said. “Many students fall in that category, and they deserve every helping hand along the way. I want Peerlift to be that helping hand.”