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Increasing Access to Education for Millions of Students; An Interview with Ken Ruggiero, Co-Founder and CEO of Ascent Funding

Increasing Access to Education for Millions of Students

Named a “Best Places to Work” by the San Diego Business Journal and American Banker and with a mission driven by unwavering dedication, best-in-class teams, and cutting-edge technology, Ascent funding is here to break down barriers and pave the way towards long-term success for students from all walks of life, also increasing access to education for millions of students. In this interview with TechBullion, Ascent CEO Ken Ruggiero delves into this financial solution that will reshape the future of education.

Please tell us more about yourself.

My name is Ken Ruggiero. I am the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ascent Funding, a leading provider of innovative financial products and student support services.

Ascent was founded in 2016 to help more students, including those often overlooked and underserved by the traditional system, access the funding they need to pay for their education. The first loan product we created was designed for college juniors and seniors who may not be able to qualify for traditional student loan options, either due to lack of access to a credit-worthy cosigner or insufficient credit or income. Since then, Ascent has expanded our offerings to skills and career training programs to help adult learners re-skill for an existing career or help develop the skills for a new one. Most recently, we launched our Ascent Success Program dedicated to helping college students with an Ascent loan access and learn through digital tools and courses, along with 1:1 career coaching as they navigate their college journey, make it to graduation, and earn a high-paying salary.

We continue to create innovative financial products and borrower-friendly benefits to serve a diverse population of students that help them achieve their academic and career goals. 

What inspired you to start Ascent, and what differentiates your business from other private student loan providers?

I was a first-generation learner and worked in my parents’ ice cream shop to save money. I worked hard to achieve more than my parents professionally and economically inspiring my lifelong commitment to allowing others to invest in their education.

When we launched Ascent, we saw no reason to exist if we could not transform the status quo with a new approach to student lending. In addition to offering financial products, we’re focused on driving positive student outcomes. We’ve invested in wrap-around success services, like financial literacy education and career coaching, to help students graduate and find a fulfilling career. Financial literacy and overall financial wellness are key skills every person should acquire and build upon throughout life. Ascent requires every borrower to complete a financial literacy course before receiving their loan. At the same time, students need academic guidance and career coaching to earn a high-paying job after leaving school. Through our financial literacy education and success services, we believe students are better equipped to manage their loans and improve their purchasing power for future investments.

Ascent and our loan products continue to be recognized by industry experts in categories such as ‘Best Private Student Loan Overall,’ ‘Best Student Loan for Independent Students,’ and ‘Best Student Loan for Flexible Repayment Options.’

With the cost of tuition continuing to rise, what do you see as the largest challenges students are facing in terms of financing their education? 

Many resources are out there to help first-time college students and families understand school costs. Knowing who to trust and where to go first can be overwhelming. One of the biggest challenges students and families face when financing their education is understanding the breakdown of the school costs. In addition to tuition, families need to budget for books, on- or off-campus housing, meal plans, transportation, and other basic living expenses. It’s also important to consider the city and state where the school is located, which can impact future housing and transportation costs.

Families should start their college financing journey by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Then, once you get your financial aid award letter, read through it carefully to understand the federal aid options you are eligible to receive. If you notice a funding gap, you can explore other financing options, such as student scholarships and private student loans.

What we’re seeing today is that federal aid is not always keeping pace with the rising costs of college tuition, which means students need access to additional funding more than ever before. Ascent is addressing this issue by offering the widest breadth of loan products to serve more students than any other private student loan company.

International students and DACA students often face additional barriers to securing financial aid, which can make going to college seem out of reach for many. What is Ascent doing to help change this?

At Ascent, we’ve created loan products that traditional bank lenders don’t offer, such as a cosigned student loan. We also make loans accessible for students with no credit, no income, and no cosigner – such as international and DACA students.

Ascent offers cosigned private student loans for international students attending U.S. colleges and universities. DACA students can apply for an Ascent loan with or without a cosigner.

The term “student success” is used frequently on Ascent’s website. What does student success mean to you, and what responsibility (if any) do you believe lenders should have in enabling student success? 

Success looks different for everyone, and it may not be a destination.

We want to empower students to complete their education and help them earn a high-paying salary. In 2022, we launched our Ascent Success Program to allow students to gain expert guidance and career coaching to build their foundation for success. Since launching, we’ve helped over 13,000 students navigate their academic and professional goals. By providing career planning and 1:1 coaching, we set students up for future success. 

It was recently announced that Ascent published its first impact report. What did it mean to you to publish the report?

Yes, this summer, we launched our very first impact report. We wanted to highlight how our financial products, success services, and talented team have driven positive student outcomes. Throughout the report, we quantify how we are making education more accessible to a broader range of students. We also set a goal to increase students’ income by $10 billion over the next five years by sourcing impact-focused investors, continuing to invest in data-driven technologies, and leading innovation in the education finance space.

I’m incredibly proud of our team and all the work behind the report. I’m confident we will reach our impact goal and continue building on our vision to be the undisputed leader in driving positive student outcomes.

The Bright Futures™ Engine College Degree ROI Calculator is one of the tools Ascent has launched to help students and their families make informed financial decisions about their education. How do you see Fintech playing a role in Ascent’s growth strategy, and are there any other product launches on the horizon?

We’re invested in driving positive student outcomes, and our Bright Futures™ Engine is an example of bringing that vision to life.

Our Bright Futures™ Engine brings transparency to the college decision journey by helping students and families evaluate their school options based on the cost of attendance. Students can select their top school choices, determine if it will be an in-state or out-of-state school, and identify their intended major to see their expected salary the first year after graduation. The tool scores colleges nationwide and empowers students to find a school and major that offers them the greatest return on their investment.

In addition to our Bright Futures Engine, we created a Bootcamp Finder to help adult learners explore skills and career training programs nationwide based on their future goals, lifestyle, family obligations, and budget.

We want to continue developing tools that make education more accessible to those without guidance or support elsewhere.

Ascent was recently named a “Best Places to Work” by the San Diego Business Journal and American Banker. How do you think Ascent’s mission and values have impacted the company culture at Ascent, and is there any advice you would give to other CEOs or founders? 

I’m fortunate to work with a talented team of experts who share my passion – to help make education more accessible. Being recognized as a Best Places to Work by multiple organizations reflects every team member’s hard work and dedication. We are a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive workplace, and we want to empower all employees to make a difference for our customers and colleagues.

One thing other CEOs could and should leverage is empowering each employee to feel valued through easy and meaningful engagement. Ascent created internal committees such as a Culture Committee and Leadership Encouraging Advancement & Diversity (LEAD) Committee to continue learning and growing from employees throughout the company. Our internal committees meet regularly, welcome feedback from across the organization, and generate new ideas that lead to a more positive workplace and happier teams. This collaboration has played a big role in building Ascent’s unique culture and success.

We also host monthly “Lunch and Learns” where one employee volunteers to share their expertise on a specific topic with the company. Topics in the past have included “Bootcamp Loans 101,” “Understanding Social Media Strategy,” and “Loan Application Processing – How it works.” It’s a really great opportunity for employees to bring their colleagues into their day-to-day work and highlight their skills.

As a parent yourself, what advice would you share with other parents or guardians looking to help their students pursue their educational goals? Is there anything you wish you’d have known earlier?

Start planning for college early and find a community you trust to gather insights. Understanding the classes your child takes as early as middle school can help set your student up for long-term success. Too often, parents delegate class selection to their child, a guidance counselor, or a partner. By not taking the right math or science classes, even in middle school, your child can find it challenging to meet the academic requirements at the top 50 schools in the country.

Have a real conversation with your child about their academic and career goals and find a school that can help them achieve those goals. Honesty and transparency can go a long way for their financial future. If there’s a school on their list you know you can’t afford, your child shouldn’t apply to it. I’ve seen families end up in too much debt because they either couldn’t say ‘no’ to their child, or they didn’t think their child would get into the expensive school. Instead, seek out a school that offers the greatest return on the college investment and has on-campus resources to help your child succeed.

If your kids are still undecided or unsure of what their future looks like, there are alternative paths you can encourage them to explore, like community college and career training programs. Four-year colleges are not for everyone, and it’s important your kids are set up for success no matter what their journey looks like.

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