While planning for college is largely about money, the choices that surround financing can be far more complex and often beyond bank staff's expertise, something that Wells Fargo's Kimarie Matthews readily admits.
"There's a certain set of questions that we are really good at answering, such as those about rates or products. But where financial institutions are not a strong is questions like 'Should I go to a four-year university?' or 'Should I go to a private or a state university?' Those answers best come from people in a situation similar to yours," says Matthews, vice president social web for Wells Fargo (WFC).
Wells Fargo has launched a collaborative online community for college planning aimed at students, parents, guidance counselors and financial advisors. While there's discussion of financial issues, much of the content deals with issues that can impact paying for college, such as choice of school, course of study, college visits, and broad discussions of saving for college and prioritizing college savings vs. other financial matters. "When people start planning for college, they start their research on the Internet. We wanted to provide a venue where people could get answers," Matthews says.
While the community is not directly related to any changes in Wells Fargo's education finance products or external issues such as regulations, Wells and other banks are facing possible changes in education-related financial services due to politics. Both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have made student lending part of their campaign platforms-with dueling proposals that could impact student loan rates, as well as other sources of college finance.
Wells Fargo stands to benefit by getting in front of the conversation among parents and students.
On Wednesday morning, the questions were from a person whose goddaughter is weighing her options between a junior college and a four-year university; a father of a five-year-old daughter asking about prioritizing college savings over other financial challenges; a person working full-time to pay a mortgage and inquiring about the benefits of going back to school to get a law degree; someone asking about applying for scholarships with no essay requirement; and a father and daughter who are visiting campuses in Oregon and Washington State.
The internally developed site is free, open to people who aren't Wells customers, and is administered and edited by the bank. Matthews says the edits are based on general content restrictions and corrections to egregious errors about education finance. Members post and discuss issues among themselves, with expert commentary and occasional responses to queries provided by financial aid officers at universities. Wells does not directly recruit these expert commentators and their participation is informal (though Matthews says the bank has relationships with a number of financial aid officers, and these officers are aware of the site). Matthews also says the site is not a sales venue, though users can also link to Wells Fargo's loan page from the community.
Matthews says the site is new, and as such didn't have detailed numbers on users. Banks are increasingly using web communities and social networking to provide a venue for discussion among specific groups. Citigroup (C), for example, has a social networks and partnerships site to provide wealth management information for women. And U.S. Bank (USB) has used web forums and social media to build brand among small business customers.