From Juno, new guarantees on low rates for MBA borrowers

Juno co-founders Chris Abkarians and Nikhil Agarwal talk about their company shortly after its inception. Courtesy picture

A familiar player on the student loan scene is promoting a new program that will raise eyebrows among many MBA borrowers.

Juno uses collective bargaining to negotiate better terms for private student loans. Four years after its launch with approximately 700 MBA students from elite business schools, Juno reached an impressive milestone last week: more than 100,000 students and parents are now leveraging their combined buying power through Juno to guarantee the lowest interest rates available.

Today, its business model stronger than ever, the company introduces a low rate warranty program negotiated for its main MBA clients. For any Juno member who finds a lower interest rate than their lending partner Earnest, Earnest will match the lower rate AND Juno will pay the borrower 1% of the loan amount as cash back.

LEVERAGE THE POWER OF OVER 100,000 BORROWERS

“This is a negotiated deal that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and most people said it was impossible,” said Pedro Russell, head of strategy and business development. Poets&Quants. “No one else can say with certainty that they can provide the cheapest option for you and your family – and guarantee it.”

Juno is not a direct lender for student loans. Instead, it invites banks, credit unions and fintech lenders to bid for the chance to serve Juno’s borrower groups, using collective bargaining to get borrowers the lowest rates and fees.

“We made a very important decision in the first year, which was to promise never to become a direct lender,” said Chris Abkarians, co-founder and CEO of Juno. P&Q. “Because the moment you do that you lose the flexibility of being able to introduce people to another lender who might be able to offer lower rates. That’s our #1 goal: to make sure we’re always able to guide people, honestly, to what we believe is the cheapest source of funding for them.

Since its inception four years ago, Juno has extended its collective bargaining model to graduate students in all programs – including law and medical schools – at all nonprofit colleges in the United States, as well as in approximately 150 schools outside the United States. It also has offers for undergraduate, DACA, and international students, as well as loan refinance and parent loans. To date, it has secured more than $460 million in loans for its users with interest rates an average of 1.6% lower than they would otherwise have obtained. (Learn more about Poets&Quants‘ Juno cover here.)

JUNO’S ORIGIN STORY

Juno, then known as LeverEdge, was founded in the summer of 2018 by Abkarians and Nikhil Agarwal as the two were preparing to start the MBA program at Harvard Business School.

The idea was born out of a WhatsApp conversation between a group of incoming HBS students who were comparing their credit history and other metrics with the loan rates they were getting. They wondered: what if they pooled their buying power to get the same wholesale discount for student loans that other groups of students were able to buy, say, laptops?

With a core group of 75 HBS students, they contacted several lenders looking for a wholesale rate – and they were turned down by nearly all. However, Anthony Noto, now CEO of SoFi and former COO of Twitter, returned their cold Linked-In Message: Interesting idea, he told them. Increase the number to 500 and we’ll talk.

Abkarians and Agarwal contacted MBAs from nine other business schools using Facebook and other social networks. The number soared to nearly 700, and they returned to lenders. They landed on one that saved each student an average of $10,000 in interest and fees compared to federal student loan rates at the time.

Chris Abkarians, left, and Nikhil Agarwal founded LeverEdge in the summer of 2018. The company has since been rebranded as Juno. Courtesy picture

HOW IT WORKS

Juno leverages its user numbers to negotiate volume-based discounts with lending agencies. It’s free for potential borrowers to join, and the more borrowers signed up, the better their leverage.

“We don’t accept payment information from anyone, but we get paid when someone takes out a loan using the products we’ve brokered,” says Abkarians. “But (borrowers) only use it if it’s actually the cheapest product they can get.”

Juno collects certain member information to group borrowers into deal segments. For example, they ask borrowers for estimated credit scores, certain financial information, amount of loans needed, education goals, etc., to build a group portfolio with which to approach lenders.

Each spring, he launches a new round of tenders, contacting dozens of lenders and informing them of the size and portfolio of borrowing groups. He asks them to submit terms for the different groups, Juno evaluates each offer, negotiates better terms when he can, to select the lender who offers the best terms.

“In our tender, we set out very clearly the standardized terms that are the best in the market and that they should adhere to,” says Abkarians. “We don’t let anyone answer whether they’re going to charge a fee, whether it’s an upfront fee, prepayment penalties or an application fee.”

This approach is unprecedented in the market to date and allows Juno to expand its reach beyond just traditional student lenders. Too many people, says Abkarians, learn about major financial products by doing a Google search, whether it’s for a low-rate mortgage or a student loan. This means that the company that appears first in the search results is not necessarily the one with the best product. Rather, the company has the highest marketing and advertising budget and these marketing costs are almost always passed on to the customer.

Juno is working to circumvent this. It can reach businesses that have never competed in the student loan market before and offer them a group of borrowers they don’t have to pay a marketer to reach, the Abkarians.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER

Juno’s new money-back guarantee was a goal the company’s founders have been working on since their first month in business, Abkarians told P&Q. It’s a signal to students that Juno trusts their service while building user confidence in what they do.

“It just took us four years to get to this point because we needed to achieve a scale that would convince our lending partners to do it,” says Abkarians. “When you’re running a business, part of what you’re interested in is, ‘Can I hold my head up high and know that the product I’m offering is one that I would use myself without hesitation?’ The structure of this one now is where the answer to that is “Yes” and I feel really good about it.

As for what’s next, the company is currently finalizing a stronger guarantee for its undergraduates while working to attract even more borrowers to its model. Abkarians is confident that the Juno model would also work for financial products outside of student loans.

For Russell, offering the guarantee is a bit more philosophical. “I think it shows the power of community both from a consumer perspective and in a business context. I think the thing I’m most proud of about being part of Juno is working to build a strong community. which has truly had a material impact on one of the most obscure consumer financial markets around.

Russell is starting his own MBA at MIT Sloan this fall. Although he actually got a full scholarship, he will use Juno’s collective bargaining power if he needs a loan for extra expenses. Juno also helps students reduce their loan amounts by offering scholarship databases and even two scholarships.

Russell’s MBA background is a bit unorthodox, he says P&Q. He got his first job at 14, started at community college, and bartender nights and weekends to help pay for his undergraduate education. He had to take out a private loan for his last semester of college, and it had an interest rate of 15%.

“I majored in finance and I know that a 1% interest rate difference can mean a $15,000 to $20,000 impact down the line,” he says. “We can take millions and millions of dollars out of the pockets of student lenders and put them back in the hands of consumers. I think we can change the world with this company.

Students and parents can register for Juno for free and without obligation at joinjuno.com.

LEARN MORE ABOUT JUNO AND FUNDING YOUR MBA IN OUR FUNDING HUB

AND DON’T MISS THE BEST STRATEGIES FOR MBA STUDENT LOANS and HOW TWO HBS STUDENTS CHANGED THE STUDENT LOAN MARKET

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