NOEL KING, HOST:
People who graduated from historically black or predominantly Hispanic colleges might be paying more to borrow money because of where they went to school. That's according to a new report from a financial watchdog group. NPR's Chris Arnold got an advance copy of that report.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: A lot more people these days are getting loans from a new breed of lenders known as fintechs, or financial technology firms, and some of these lenders factor in where you went to college.
KAT WELBECK: It really raised some alarm flags.
ARNOLD: Kat Welbeck is the civil rights counsel at the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center. Her group decided to run a test. They chose a fintech lender called Upstart. You can get a loan offer off its website. And they applied for dozens of loans online, posing as a 24-year-old man. They said he lives in New York, makes $50,000 a year.
WELBECK: The only difference was where he went to school.
ARNOLD: They applied as if he went to NYU in New York, a bunch of other schools and Howard University.
WELBECK: One of the most famous historically black colleges and universities in this country. And we looked at what would a borrower from Howard, what would they see if they applied for this type of loan?
ARNOLD: And then they compared. And they found that if you went to NYU versus Howard, for a $30,000 personal loan with a five-year term, they found you'd pay about $3,500 more in interest and fees if you went to Howard, a historically black college.
WELBECK: There is no other difference between these two borrowers other than the fact that one attended NYU and one attended Howard.
ARNOLD: The group found you'd also pay more if you went to New Mexico State, which has a high percentage of Hispanic students. In a new report called "Educational Redlining," the group says lenders may be discriminating based on what college you attended. We reached out to Dave Girouard, the CEO of Upstart.
DAVE GIROUARD: We definitely appreciate the intent.
ARNOLD: Girouard used to be a senior executive at Google and founded Upstart, he says, to use technology to make credit more available. Upstart, he says, goes way beyond looking at your credit score. There are more than a thousand factors.
GIROUARD: I mean, we're a company that, you know, our entire mission and the reason, you know, we get out of bed every morning is to improve access to affordable credit. So we are absolutely supportive of the intent that credit shouldn't be biased or unfair in any way.
ARNOLD: But Girouard says, basically, the test the nonprofit group ran doesn't prove that using education as a factor leads to discrimination.
GIROUARD: Using, you know, hypothetical, contrived applicants for a loan who aren't real people was, you know, both anecdotal and not reflective of the real world. And, you know, we're a company that has tested for fairness and bias over millions of applicants, and that's our approach to ensuring that our platform isn't biased against anybody.
ARNOLD: Still, the report raised the eyebrows of some legal experts. Todd Baker teaches a course on fintech at Columbia University's law school. He says the traditional credit score approach to lending has its own problems and biases, and some fintech lenders' alternative approaches can help.
TODD BAKER: Using alternative data can be highly beneficial, but also has dangers. And we need to be very vigilant that we don't recreate some of the problematic practices of the past unintentionally.
ARNOLD: Advocates are increasingly worried that casting such a wide net for data to make decisions introduces biases in new and different ways. Welbeck says her group is pushing for better oversight and more transparency from fintech companies.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.