financial aidApplying for financial aid is a byzantine process that frustrates even the smartest whiz kid. Now there's a contest geared toward finding new ways toward simplifying the process -- and you get to vote on the idea you think is best.

The Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge is a national competition organized by MTV, the College Board, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It recently asked current and aspiring college students to re-imagine and simplify the financial aid process by coming up with creative uses of digital tools. Hundreds of submissions came from students in 48 states, and were winnowed down to entries from three finalists, who then got to work with the consulting firm Frog Design to flesh out their ideas and come up with prototypes. Between now and March 21, you can vote for one of those three.The winner will receive $10,000, and see their idea funded by MTV and the College Board with a budget of $100,000. The finished project will become a part of Get Schooled, a national campaign funded by the Gates Foundation to promote higher education and increase high school graduation rates

Here are the three finalists and the ideas they've come up with:
  • Larissa Simpson, New York University. An NYU grad student, Simpson is proposing the "Avatar Project," an interactive gaming experience that helps students navigate the process of securing grants, scholarships and loans to finance their education. Users can personalize their gaming experience through an avatar that guides them through each step of the financial-aid process. Positive reinforcement and guided connection with peers through social networks like Facebook will encourage students to meet deadlines and fulfill their college financing goals. "It works to streamline and make already-existing networks more efficient," says Simpson. "To do this, it provides an interface that's easy and rewarding to use, both for students and their parents." She says that a part of the Avatar Project would reward students for completing parts of the financial-aid process, with access to music and gaming app downloads, or retailer coupons.

  • Dekunle Somade, University of Maryland. Somade, a college senior, came up with "First Aid," a single-source online and text-messaging platform that serves as a financial-aid tool desiged especially for low-income students. "First Aid" will organize a wide array of financial-aid and admissions information, and make it easier for colleges' financial aid offices to communicate with students in need. The platform will also track users' progress toward securing funding for school, and alert them to relevant scholarship and grant opportunities. "Most lower-income students do not have access to smartphones and home computers, however they do have cell phones with text-messaging capabilities," says Somade. "So a college-financing website, such as 'First Aid,' that provides all of its site search and alert features through text messages will really make a difference for every student. 'First Aid' will also allow prospective students to communicate with financial-aid offices at a university, which will ensure that the student gets accurate information on that institution's financing options."

  • Devin Valencia, University of Nevada. This 22-year-old college grad envisions the "Connect Fund," an interactive Facebook application that offers a step-by-step guide on how to fill out the FAFSA forms and apply for grants, scholarships and loans. The app will prioritize financial-aid opportunities based on the user's demographic information. It also lets them get other users' feedback on their financial-aid questions and concerns. "By providing an innovative app via Facebook, students will find the FAFSA application process less overwhelming," Valencia says. "Connect Fund will bring about the change needed to improve college attendance and make college more affordable."
Whose idea is best? Cast your vote. You have until March 21 to help pick a winner.

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