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Sallie Mae Launches Site for College-Bound Students

Sallie Mae Inc. will open a new loan acquisition channel with the launch next month of wiredscholar.com.

The firm’s new brand targets the estimated 5 million students planning for college each year, their parents and families, and high school guidance counselors — a market that annually accounts for nearly $33 billion in student loans.

“Traditionally, we’ve not had contact with students prior to them entering college,” said David L. Cooper, assistant vice president of marketing at Sallie Mae, Reston, VA. “What we’re doing with wiredscholar is developing a relationship with consumers prior to them getting to school.”

A Fortune 500 company, Sallie Mae provides funds for federally guaranteed student loans. The 26-year-old company last year reported revenue of $3.3 billion on asset holdings of $44 billion. It has 5.3 million borrowers on its books.

Wiredscholar.com is Sallie Mae’s first major Internet push beyond the flagship salliemae.com, a largely informational site.

Scheduled to go live April 18, the site is intended to reduce the stress and anxiety involved in the chaotic process of paying for college. It will offer tools for college preparation, evaluation, selection, application and financial information.

The crown jewel of the site is a coveted database of information on 600,000 scholarships worth more than $1 billion each year. Visitors will have free access to the site, though registration is required to verify qualification for student loans.

While the site will allow students to apply for loans online, they still have to mail Sallie Mae a signed promissory note to have the loan officially processed.

Michael Darne, director of business development at Sallie Mae, said the goal of wiredscholar is to help students borrow responsibly.

“We have a lot of different information on the sources and ways to pay for college and deciding how you’re going to pay,” Darne said. “So I think it’s quite interactive in that it’s designed for a student who’s already been accepted in a school and is wondering, ‘Am I getting a good deal here?’ “

To bolster legitimacy, Sallie Mae has reached partnership deals with education industry experts.

Partners in wiredscholar.com include Internet bookseller VarsityBooks.com and Kaplan, which offers standardized test preparation classes. Other participants are educational publisher Peterson’s; embark.com, an online resource for college applications; and Achieva, a northern California college admissions consultancy.

To reach its audience, Sallie Mae will use a combination of e-mails to students, direct mail to financial aid administrators at colleges, posters in high schools and print ads in consumer and education trade publications. Benenson Janson, Los Angeles, handles the wiredscholar account.

In addition, one-on-one sessions are planned with guidance counselors, a key influence in the loan borrowing process. Apart from this, Sallie Mae will participate in and sponsor guidance counselor events around the country.

The media plan includes a monthly online sweepstakes promotion. Students who register at wiredscholar.com are eligible for a $1,000 scholarship.

In addition, Sallie Mae will send between two and four e-mails a year to students who fill out a scholarship search profile at salliemae.com. This database will move to wiredscholar.com when the site is launched.

For the moment, wiredscholar.com’s edge over its competition is its pedigree and Sallie Mae’s entrenched relationships with schools and students.

However, many companies are readying to launch in this space and some year-old start-ups are repositioning, said Jim Ayube, who covers the education industry for Boston-based Aberdeen Group.

“While there are relatively few sources on the Web that aggregate all the information that wiredscholar.com claims it will,” Ayube said, “as with any Internet-based business, if it is successful it will draw plenty of imitators that can basically copy the successful model another company has laid out for them.”

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