Soda Pop Money and Smart Phones: Improving Access with Scholly
by William Sweet
Getting help with your college expenses just became as easy as picking up a phone, thanks in part to the work of Bryson Alef ’14.
Amidst all the news about increasing higher-education costs, Scholly, a new smartphone app that helps students sniff out the best scholarships, has been catching some attention, not to mention clicks at the App Store and Google Play. Alef, a double major in computer science and psychology, designed the app.
Bryson Alef ‘14
The venture is the brainchild of Christopher Gray, now a senior at Drexel University, who gained notoriety for winning $1.3 million in scholarships in 2010. About 35 different scholarships are paying for Gray’s education up through his future doctorate, with money left over for investments such as this business.
Alef first met the “Million Dollar Scholar” at an Atlanta event for Coca-Cola Scholars in 2010. Both had won scholarships from the soda company, and the two struck up a friendship.
Late last year, Gray contacted Alef with a business proposition, asking, Remember how much of a pain the scholarship process was?
Alef remembered. “It’s almost a full-time job. You go online and by word-of-mouth, and compile your own list of scholarships that apply to you, and compile your own list to apply for,” he said. “I spent hours and hours and days and days searching for applications and filling them out.”
Knowing that Alef had app design skills, Gray convinced him to join a mission to increase access to education along with Nick Pirollo, a recent Drexel graduate.
Alef’s design is simple and powerful. The consumer selects from a list of search parameters, including gender, race, geography, GPA and major, and the app gives back a sortable list of scholarships that he or she is eligible for, including deadlines. Students can select scholarships that are need-based or rewarded on merit.
The database—which includes several hundred scholarships—is routinely updated, manually. At its core, the list features all the scholarships that the team researched when they were applying to college. The team is adamant about human beings compiling the data.
“You have these websites like Fastweb that do Web-crawler-based gathering of information. I used those and stopped using them after about five minutes, because the results are always garbage,” Alef said. “Half the results don’t apply to you, and include scholarships that aren’t even really scholarships, but are loans and things like that.”
Scholly also features examples of winning application essays. Alef says these are included for inspiration and guidance, not to encourage plagiarism. “[The scholarship providers] are very good at catching that kind of thing. They can tell if it’s a lazy application or if it’s an application where a lot of time really went into it.”
“We are taking that first stretch of work and lightening the load. When I think of the hours and weeks that I spent just looking for scholarships—that’s just grunt, menial labor,” Alef said.
The important work—of showing their excellence and creativity—is still up to the students, he said.
What the app does not show is the financial aid available at the colleges these students hope to attend. Accumulating that kind of data is too unwieldy, Alef believes, and consumers would likely resist entering the kind of detail about themselves that would make such a feature possible.
The fact that Amherst College’s robust financial aid program doesn’t cross Scholly’s radar screen doesn’t faze Dean of Financial Aid Gail Holt. She feels that Scholly’s mission syncs well with Amherst’s dedication to providing access: “It is in the exact same spirit, to help students make college affordable.”
Amherst is “need-blind”—applying for financial aid has no bearing on whether a student will be admitted. The college provides assistance in the form of scholarships and grants and work-study. In the 2012–13 academic year, Amherst students received need-based financial aid totaling approximately $48,482,000 from the college, as well as more than $700,000 in grants from outside agencies.
Resources such as Scholly are helpful to Amherst’s financial aid office, Holt said:“These grants help students reduce their reliance on … work-study, so they could focus more on their academics, and it also helps the college be able to spread out its resources.”
If a student wins a lot of outside scholarships, they can affect his or her financial aid package at Amherst, Holt said. But this should not discourage anyone from applying. The goal should be finding the resources to access education.
“I think the value of the app is the centrality, as a clearinghouse of information, so students can go to one place and get as many sources for help as possible,” Holt said. “I tell students, ‘You should apply for as many scholarships as you can, and look for the odd ones that won’t have a lot of applicants.’”
His technical work for Scholly is limited to updating the database and features, while the entire team puts the focus on marketing and expanding the customer base. For now, he is leading mobile development for CapsuleCam, a Los-Angeles-based startup.
Alef feels Scholly has the potential to help transform the demographics of who attends college.
“It could actually change the game, by making college more affordable for everyone, by increasing competition, maybe even putting more scholarships out there,” he said. “We are getting several hundred downloads a day at this point.”