AWS Public Sector Blog

Using AWS to help students find an affordable college

This is a guest post by Sara O’Hearn, director of product at Moneythink.

Moneythink is an education technology nonprofit providing big solutions to help with college affordability, accessibility, and student loan debt. Since 2008, Moneythink has worked toward student-focused financial wellness and equity. We provide students with tools and support to understand financial options and tradeoffs before enrolling in a post-secondary school. Our work promotes college cost transparency and empowers college-bound students to graduate with less debt.

After more than a decade of coaching students and interviewing hundreds of families, we realized that the best way to reach the most students was to provide them with a no cost, simple-to-use digital tool to understand and compare financial tradeoffs against other college fit factors. We built DecidED, a web app that runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and provides students across the country with guidance and support to understand financial aid options and budgeting for remaining college costs.

Making college costs clear for students and advisors

DecidED helps students clearly understand the net costs for each college they’ve been accepted to. Students can upload multiple acceptance letters and the tool compares overall costs of each school so students can make informed enrollment decisions and plans to pay. Our work gives students the cost transparency necessary to make clear decisions about their futures, and is especially beneficial for historically marginalized students, as they often lack resources due to institutionally imposed barriers.

DecidED was also designed for advisors and counselors to maximize the assistance they can give high schoolers to make financially informed college decisions. Before DecidED, a college advisor would need to either manually interpret each complicated financial aid document or ask their students to do so. However, these letters are so inconsistently formatted and worded that even trained counselors find them difficult to understand. Moreover, an advisor or administrator taking the time to review each letter themselves can easily exceed 100 hours for organizations serving 1,000 or more students. DecidED’s award letter processing, built with AWS Cloud solutions, gives practitioners cloud-based, verified college affordability information. Besides controlling for human error, this saves organizations many hours of administrative time spent following up on requests.

Using AWS to scale our impact for students and educators

Our goal with DecidED was to create a scalable, simple digital tool that could be accessed anywhere, anytime. Using AWS has been critical in enabling us to deliver on that mission while helping us create a straightforward, user-friendly tool for students that can be accessed from any type of device.

Specifically, DecidED relies on Amazon Textract to interpret the acceptance and financial aid award letters uploaded by the students. Textract is a machine learning (ML) service that automatically extracts text, handwriting, and data from scanned documents.

Figure 1. The DecidED AWS Architecture.

Figure 1. The DecidED AWS Architecture

When a user uploads a digital version of their college financial award letter into the DecidED app, the file is sent to an Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) bucket and then through to Amazon Textract, which uses ML to extract text, tables, and other key data points. Moneythink then classifies and categorizes Textract’s outputs and inputs them into a Standardized Award Letter Feedback dashboard the user can access to make visual comparisons between college costs.

DecidED also uses Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS) and Elastic Load Balancing (ELB) to scale our services as needed, depending on the intensity and volume of user engagement. This is particularly helpful, as compute power requirements dramatically increase during the busy award letter season (typically February through May) and reduce at other times in the academic school year. Rather than managing our own databases and provisioning our technology to handle the peaks in traffic, we use AWS to scale these resources up and down depending on our seasonal demands.

A need for robust functionality and affordability

We selected AWS and Amazon Textract for DecidED because it performed the best in terms of accuracy and ease of use. We found Textract to be strong at identifying and extracting data from tables, which is very helpful for our use case.

After selecting Textract as our optical character recognition (OCR) tool, we sought to develop our other capabilities inside the same cloud platform. We have five developers, quick timelines, and limited financial resources. Using AWS’s serverless products enabled us to build the most important aspects of our application quickly, without spending too much time optimizing server configurations. Serverless technology helped us launch quickly and position ourselves to scale, with no wasted compute capacity, and the understanding that we only pay for the infrastructure we use.

Applying our learning to grow and serve more students

Moneythink launched the DecidED API in August 2021 and we are working to expand how that API can be integrated into existing customer software services and solutions. Because we built our backend on AWS, we can enable customers to make calls to our API in a secure and reliable way. We are expanding our database of college financial aid data and providing public access through the DecidED API to the aggregated information we gather in a bid for greater transparency around college costs.

While serverless infrastructure can present cost savings for an organization, it’s important to evaluate and manage how it can impact processes and monthly costs. For instance, initially our developers were using the cloud services to build and test on their local machines, and when our team expanded, we quickly discovered that our costs were unnecessarily rising. We have since restructured our build and test process to be more efficient and mindful of how our cloud services are applied. We also recommend having security requirements thoroughly defined and established at the point of initiation for new cloud-based projects as it can be challenging to make changes retroactively.

Learn more about AWS for nonprofits

Nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world are increasing their impact with AWS. AWS offers multiple programs for nonprofits to get started on the cloud, including the AWS Nonprofit Credit Program, which helps organizations offset the costs of implementing cloud-based solutions. Apply for the AWS Nonprofit Credit Program to start your journey with AWS.

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