Dena Glaeser – College Ave Student Loans
Even as a 22-year-old law student, Dena Z. Glaeser found the approximately 40 pages of her student loan documents overwhelming and overly complicated. It took her a while to parse through the various terms and to understand the nuances, like how interest accrues or that borrowers can start paying while still in school.
“I struggled as a law student, so I can only imagine how confusing these loans are for most people, especially undergrads or first-generation college students,” she shares with Vanguard.
At the time, she felt concerned about the lack of communication from lenders and even the federal government. She says they wouldn’t send monthly statements but contacted borrowers only when the loan was disbursed and again when payments were due.
So, when Glaeser was ready to step into her first general counsel role, she chose College Ave Student Loans. Like a traditional financial institution, the private online lender, headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, provides several student loan and refinancing options.
When she became the company’s chief legal officer in 2020, she brought with her years of financial legal experience; she had prior roles as the fintech and retail banking attorney for Fifth Third Bank and was one of the lead regulatory attorneys for Navient. The transparency underpinning everything at College Ave, founded in 2014, was what ultimately drew her to the company.
“The founders thought traditional student loans were unnecessarily confusing and created a way to provide students with better, clearer options, such as being able to choose loan lengths and payback terms,” Glaeser says. “Our entire business is student loans, and our top priority is saying what we do, and doing what we say.”
Making loans crystal clear
According to Glaeser, apart from immediately sending monthly statements listing loan details, College Ave is making the loan process more transparent through various tools, including an online payment calculator for all potential and current borrowers.
This digital tool provides real time financial insights. First-time applicants can get a clear picture of potential future monthly payments correlating with the amount they’re hoping to borrow. If a student or current borrower starts a part-time job and wants to begin paying, that person can see the impact those payments will have on interest accrual and the time it takes to pay down the loan.
The calculator is simple enough, unlike the legal nuances surrounding it. Glaeser ensures College Ave follows all digital data privacy and loan laws and regulations. She says she’s happy to manage the legal side, so students, parents and guardians can come to College Ave and use all of its tools and services, including refinancing loans they may have obtained from other financial institutions.
“Lenders should be helping people access college and not hobbling borrowers with debt,” she says. “We want to get repaid, of course, but our success is in the success of our borrowers, a mutually beneficial relationship.”
This idea underpins her efforts, as well as efforts of others across the company, to convince Congress to pass a student loan transparency law.
According to Glaeser, while lenders have information about interest accrual and repayment terms, it’s not easily accessible; borrowers often have to hunt through confusing site links and paper documentation with legal jargon. She tells Vanguard she’s shocked at how difficult gaining traction on this matter has been; she believes every politician should be excited about making loans clearer, as that should logically make them easier to pay back—and deter people from borrowing more than they should.
College Ave also works closely with vendors to continue evolving. Glaeser says the law firm Kutak Rock has helped the company with increasingly complex financing transactions for years. The law firm of McGlinchey Stafford has also worked with College Ave since its inception; it assists Glaeser in consumer finance legal matters, including ensuring College Ave has the licenses needed to offer its products in all 50 U.S. states.
“This is not an easy business,” she says. “We’ve built success and long-standing partnerships with our outside counsel, who have grown as we have; relationships with firms, vendors and communities—and even amongst colleagues—are just as important as those with borrowers.”
Paving new career, college and loan paths
Transparency has been working for College Ave. In 2023, Forbes, Nerdwallet and U.S. News and World Report all awarded it a title of best private student loans company of 2022. Glaeser says in under 10 years, the fintech start-up has become the third largest in-school lender, now handling more than $1 billion in annual student loans.
“We’re not magical,” she tells Vanguard with a laugh. “We’re simply being upfront, so even 18-year-olds with zero legal experience can understand the debt they’re taking on—and how and when to pay it off most efficiently.”
Glaeser wishes College Ave had existed when she was a student. She wasn’t the first in her family to attend college but was among the first to do so in the U.S. Neither she nor her parents had any inkling of how to manage student loans.
After graduating from Temple Law School in 2003, she began clerking in Pennsylvania state court, which provided valuable experience but not a high salary. Yet, she was paying thousands of dollars in monthly loan payments; she hadn’t known she could consolidate the loans and reduce her payments.
So, she’s delighted to be an essential part of College Ave’s mission. She’s continuing to tackle the legal side of the company’s financing transactions, while building and standardizing templates for its various contracts.
In 2022, she also oversaw what she calls “a transformative investment.” The Fortune 500 financial services organization Thrivent became College Ave’s new majority shareholder. Now, she’s helping College Ave explore other growth and product expansion opportunities.
Her diverse expertise and background come in handy. The daughter of Syrian immigrants, she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, dressing up in her mother’s 1980s suit as early as the third grade and carrying around her father’s briefcase. She hadn’t, however, planned on a business degree.
With the support of her husband, who kept their two children busy in the early days of the pandemic, she graduated with an MBA from the John Hopkins University in December 2020, a year after starting at College Ave. This business foundation has revamped her career, allowing her to weigh in on both business and legal issues.
“I’m doing everything I can to ensure student loans are easier for borrowers to understand and manage, while supporting College Ave in bringing its transparency to more customers as we grow,” Glaeser says.
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer III 2023 Edition here.
Showcase your feature on your website with a custom “As Featured in Vanguard” badge that links directly to your article!
Copy and paste this script into your page coding (ideally right before the closing