“Kickstart” Your Academic Career: Crowdfunding to Pay for College

Marilee Turscak

Most everyone by now has heard of the famous website, Kickstarter.com, which launched in April of 2009 and was lauded by Time Magazine as one of the “Best Inventions of 2010” and “Best Websites of 2011.” Kickstarter allows people to raise funds for personal projects through online donations, and since the creation of the website, more than $976 million dollars have been pledged to support 56,104 projects. Among the most popular were Pebble, an e-paper watch for iPhone and Android, which raised $10,2666,845; Ouya, a wireless video game console that raised $8,596,474; the Veronica Mars movie, a reprise of a discontinued high school detective drama from the mid-2000s that raised $5,702,153; and Luci, a device designed to create lucid dreams that raised nearly $400,000, despite having started with a goal of only $40,000.

Now, the success of Kickstarter has inspired others to create similar websites to support students hoping to pay for college. Angeldorm.com, YouCaring.com, GoFundMe.com, ScholarMatch, MicroGiving.com, and GoGetFunding.com are among many sites that allow people to raise funding for various projects and causes, including support for college education.

The description on Angeldorm’s LinkedIn page says, “The average college student graduates from college with $25K in debt. Angeldorm offers a solution.” A visitor to the site can click through pages of student profiles and view the progress that students have made in attaining their goals.

Brittnie Knight, an Economics major at Utah State University, wrote on her profile, “Since starting college, I have been working three jobs in order to pay for my own education. It’s been hard, but well worth it. A donation would help me be able to spend less time working and more time on my studies.” Knight met her goal of raising $1,700.

On GoFundMe.com, art student Kenneth Fox raised almost $8,000 in one week after creating a humorous video in which he asked his friends and family for help to pay for his tuition for Interlochen Arts Academy. In a heartfelt ballad, he sang, “I am in this world alone/Too poor to get past the walls of my own home.” Fox wrote in a testimonial that he had put together the music video and a profile page “not sure if anything would really come of it,” but found in less than a week that he had met his financial goal.

Crowdsourcing sites allow people to find practical, creative solutions to their financial problems, rather than racking up debt.

But practicality aside, the thought of asking people for money might be a deterrent for those who aim to be self-sufficient and do not wish to be perceived as so-called “charity cases.”

It is difficult to ask people for money, and the line between asking and begging may often seem blurry.

Additionally, there is a risk that people may occasionally use these sites for shady causes. GoFundMe CEO Brad Damphouse admitted that the website “occasionally has knuckleheads signing up.” One user raised $2,000 under the false claim that he had cancer.

If the websites do not require any sort of security screening, donors might have little way of knowing whether students truly need the money that they request. For instance, while one student might work full time and have little financial support from family, another student might have sufficient resources but simply be too lazy to get a summer job. The term “need” becomes subjective, and much potential exists for fraud.

 On GoFundMe’s “Common Questions” page, the policy states that users will receive money even if they do not reach their goals. Donors, therefore, have little assurance that the students will use their money for its intended purpose.  

To add to the confusion, several websites, such as ScholarMatch and MicroGiving, connect donors and “scholars” who have never met each other. Often, donors and students remain completely anonymous, and ScholarMatch’s official policy states that donors may only contact their scholars if they first contact the website’s staff. ScholarMatch’s donor list has gift categories ranging from $25 to $50,000+, and each category contains records of donations given by anonymous patrons. Astoundingly, several anonymous donors have given more than $50,000 to individual students.

Hence, a student may receive funding to cover his or her entire college education, yet never know the source of that funding.

ScholarMatch, unlike most other crowdfunding sites, has a selective screening process that prevents student dishonesty and ensures that scholars meet certain need-based and skill-based criteria. Nevertheless, the concept of crowdfunded education is new, and success rates remain largely unknown.

Much may depend on the charisma of the individual student and the time that he/she devotes toward embellishing his/her profile page, rather than the individual need or skills of the student. Students who play their cards right may also learn to market their pages to catch the interest of specific donors—for instance, alumni who wish to donate to particular schools.

Ultimately, all charitable actions involve an element of risk. Any time a patron gives a gift, the patron allows for the possibility that the receiver might waste the opportunity. The benefit of crowdfunding is that it enables people to settle their own terms. Donors can give freely or conditionally, anonymously or publicly.

Though legal issues remain unsettled and success rates remain unknown, crowdfunding websites, if nothing else, provide a convenient, organized platform for charitable giving. In a world of skyrocketing college tuitions, any potential solution to college debt is worth exploring.

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