Kogod in Practice Hits Home Run with Undebted Pro Bono Project

Undergraduate and graduate Kogod School of Business students worked with start-up Undebted to address the student debt crisis with creative solutions.

Piggy bank wearing a graduation cap

At the heart of "in practice" is the ability to provide experiential education to Kogod students. And extending beyond that is the possibility for students to see ways to make a difference in the community around them.

The 2020-2021 fall and spring semesters offered just this opportunity for three Eagles, who provided pro bono consulting services to an innovative social enterprise start-up here in the DC area.

Undebted has a nonpartisan mission that seeks to address the student debt crisis from a different angle—making it possible for people to get tax-free "scholarships" after college to pay down or pay off their student loans. It's an effort that's part business, part education, and part advocacy. And, it was something Kogod in Practice—a program offering exclusive access to internships, co-ops, and pro bono projects—was eager to embrace.

“From the moment we started working with Undebted founder Andrew Chapman, I could see our students rising to the occasion," said Assistant Dean of Experiential Learning Angela Petras. “The mission of the organization, combined with Andrew's passion, made this a very special project.”

In fact, the project's three students—Ian Whitehouse, Kogod/BSBA ‘23; Sania Safdar, Kogod/MBA ‘22; and César Gonzales, Kogod/MBA ‘23—became just as passionate about the Undebted mission as its founder, and they were thrilled to be a part of providing pro bono consultation to the organization. It allowed them to interact with a very early start-up in social entrepreneurship on a topic relevant to them and their classmates.

”Not only did we fall in love with the project because it is relevant and makes perfect sense," said Gonzalez, "but we had the opportunity to make a real difference in a real business. It just felt great to see our work come to life.”

Chapman was equally happy with the outcome.

"It's hard to imagine I could've had any better students than these three," he said. "They were fully engaged, very insightful, and creative in their approaches to the problems I presented. And they were simply fun to work with."

Among the many insights the team discovered and delivered, one in particular resonated with everyone—that Washington, DC, has the highest per capita student debt in the nation.

But while there were such unexpected insights, there were also glaringly obvious realities.

As we all know, 2020-2021 will go down as a unique academic year in American University history. And this project was no exception.

During the course of the consultation, neither Petras, the students, nor Chapman had the ability to meet in person at any point. All calls were on Zoom, and everyone was spread across the world—in DC, Virginia, Connecticut, Cuba, and Pakistan. But the connection was no less real.

”Zoom fatigue is definitely a thing!" said Petras. "But during our time with Undebted, there was such inspiration from the students and Andrew that we all looked forward to getting on these calls. It didn’t matter at all that we were not physically together because we all felt so strongly about the mission. Team members established deep, life-long relationships.”

And while the project ended in February, one of the students didn't stop there.

Gonzalez brought to Bob Sweeney, Kogod’s director of internship programming, an expansive idea. The Kogod in Practice program’s pro bono consulting could be tied to the On the Table initiative at the Greater Washington Community Foundation, which has partnered with AU to create “communities of practice” across the DMV. This opens avenues for grant funding, further student consulting, and other symbioses between the university, private business, and the nonprofit sector.

“César had this idea of scaling what the students did with Undebted by offering consulting services to all of the grant recipients for the On The Table initiative at the Community Foundation,” said Sweeney. “It is brilliant and thoughtful, especially because these grants are given to people with ideas in the community where there is no infrastructure or funding to facilitate consulting help. This will ensure these community-based projects have maximum impact and will give the students a source of great pride in giving back to their college hometown.”

At this point, it's too early to say what can grow out of the project with Undebted, but the possibilities are wide open, and benefits have been immediate on all sides.

And the potential is certainly there for the university, the program, and the students to have a huge impact on the greater student debt crisis.

"While all the big talk now is about debt cancellation, it's politically challenging and cannot solve the entire problem alone," said Chapman. "What Undebted brings to the conversation is a complementary idea that is politically neutral, less costly to taxpayers, and yet can help millions of people. We can get them out of their student debt and back to their student dreams."

If you are an organization and would like to work with AU students on a pro bono consulting project, visit our employer information page.

If you’re a student and want to join a consulting project, visit our student information page.

If you are interested in learning more about Undebted, how your own student debt might be reduced, or how to help, join the movement at Undebted.org.