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Sallie Mae acquires Wilmington-based Nitro College

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Sallie Mae recently acquired Wilmington-based Nitro College as it looks to expand its marketing efforts and resources for borrowers. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

CHRISTIANA – The student lending giant Sallie Mae recently acquired Nitro College, a growing online higher education planning resource website with First State roots.

Developed by Epic Research, a Wilmington marketing firm founded by two top executives of the former Juniper Bank that was acquired by Barclays, Nitro College is a resource clearinghouse for families looking at how to afford college.

Nitro College offers vetted lending partners and educational resources for borrowers. | SCREENSHOT

Unlike some other websites though, Nitro College vets all advertised companies on its site to ensure they are not offering predatory terms or unresponsive to issues. It notes that almost 45 million Americans have student loans they’re trying to pay off worth an estimated total of more than $1.5 trillion, and the website aims to help borrowers pay off the debts confidently. It earns a commission if users take out a loan or refinance through the website.

“Having the opportunity to build something specifically for student loans, where you’re able to provide a more holistic solution, tools, resources, and really engage customers versus just being a comparison site for loans or credit cards is very rewarding,” said Justin Moran, the chief digital officer at Nitro College who is one of eight employees now joining Sallie Mae.

The two companies have worked together since 2017, when Sallie Mae became an approved partner at Nitro College. Last year, the lending giant began looking for ways to expand its brand and offerings in the marketplace.

Donna Vieira | PHOTO COURTESY OF SALLIE MAE

“We wanted to expand our brand to really address more of those confidence gap moments that families experience on the higher education journey,” said Donna Vieira, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Sallie Mae.

Out of that emphasis, it returned to Nitro College and initially sought to expand its partnership. After meeting, however, Sallie Mae’s executives quickly realized that outfit was better fit than they may have expected.

“We realized that there really was a very strong meeting of the minds,” Vieira said, noting the discussions evolved into talk of an acquisition in just a few weeks.

Moran said that interest level surprised Epic leaders, but they were excited about the connection.

“We’ve been around for six years, but we’re still very much thinking we’re in startup mode. There’s been some success in approaching 4 million members, but we still are building out new tools and new experiences. We thought it was kind of early to even consider something like this,” he said.

The acquisition price was not disclosed – it was deemed not material to the publicly traded Sallie Mae, meaning the acquisition price was comparatively small to the company worth $5.8 billion. Nitro College is the first acquisition for Sallie Mae since it bought 529 college savings plan administrator Upromise in 2006.

While Epic has worked with outside agencies and consultants on producing the actual content, the strategy was developed fully in-house, Moran said. They aimed for “easily digestible” content on student loans, scholarships and grants, but other content dives into education and lifestyle trends and frequently asked question sections. It uses follow-up emails to remain in contact with users.

“It is a long timeline for someone going through financial aid, scholarships and all the different steps, so a lot of that engagement takes place off the website via our email program,” Moran said.

With Nitro College now becoming a Sallie Mae brand, Moran said he’s excited to put the resources of the Fortune 1000 company to work.

“[Epic has] been very generous with investments, and we’ve been able to execute and build a lot of great things, but we have to navigate with those limited resources,” Moran said of the small firm.

Vieira agreed and said that Sallie Mae would learn from the Nitro team and work as an “accelerator” for the brand.

“Our goal is really for Nitro to continue to unlock the incredible value that they’ve already started creating,” she said.

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