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Students Turn to Crowdfunding to Pay for College

Tuition-seeking students: brother, can you spare a few thousand?


Beleaguered, cash-strapped Blanche Dubois, the fading Southern belle in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, has nothing on Alexis-Brianna Felix. Faced with leaving BU last year because her family couldn’t cover costs, despite what she calls the University’s generous financial aid, Felix (COM’16), like Blanche, relied on the kindness of strangers (along with some family and friends). She did it in a way Blanche never heard of: crowdfunding.

An acquaintance tipped Felix to the technique, which entails raising money from large numbers of people, usually online. She hesitated, because she “didn’t want to feel like a charity case,” but scholarships and borrowing from family fell short of what she needed, and she was denied private loans for lack of credit and a cosigner. Fearing she would have to drop out despite excellent grades, she swallowed her reservations and tried crowdfunding site GoFundMe.com.

“My original goal was the $5,000 I needed to remain at BU for my spring 2014 semester,” Felix says. She hit that target in just 27 hours—and money kept pouring in from high school classmates and their families, former teachers, and friends of her family. After her happy-ending story hit the media, strangers started donating. In all, Felix raised $9,761, with the extra funds helping to cover last semester’s expenses, plus bus fare home to New York.

Felix joined a burgeoning student population nationally that’s fishing in the crowdfunding pond for college money. Business Insider reports that in 2014, GoFundMe alone hosted almost 107,000 education-related campaigns grossing more than $13 million. (Other crowdfunding sites include Pigit and Zerobound.)

The University, which awards $195 million in financial aid to about half the undergraduate student body, does not track the number of crowdfunding Terriers. But “students have always sought support from family and friends,” says Christine McGuire, associate vice president for enrollment and student affairs. “Crowdsourcing just provides a public platform to the exchange.”

Using GoFundMe seems equally logical to Breanna Allen (CAS’17). “People crowdfund for money for a new shiny sports car. But in my case, I would be crowdfunding for an education to make a difference in the world,” says the premed student. Allen works part-time and is contributing a percentage of her paycheck each week to her account on the site. Her mom is a single parent, a Realtor struggling to put two daughters through school while assisting her brother as well, Allen says.

“It’s hard seeing how difficult this is on her, and I’m doing everything I can to help out,” she says. “It’s very tough being a student from a low-income family trying to get an education.”

Rhyanne Lynch (CGS’16) turned to GoFundMe after a friend covered some medical expenses using the site. The San Diego resident figured that “if someone wanted to help me go to college…” Several someones did, to the tune of $7,600, after GoFundMe deducted its fee from her haul. (Her mother and stepfather’s income disqualified her for financial aid, Lynch says; most of her college expenses are being covered by loans from her stepfather and a bank.)

Lynch asked for a year’s tuition on GoFundMe, but she’s “ecstatic” with the far smaller amount she received. “I figured there was no harm in asking. The reality of the situation was I wasn’t expecting family and friends to raise $42,000 for me.”

Just over 20 people, mostly family and family friends, but also a half dozen anonymous givers, donated towards her schooling. Aspiring to work in financial advising, Lynch concedes that she “could have gone to a state school,” which would have been less costly, “but I figured I’d get much more opportunities here, leaving with this degree.”

Lynch was familiar with GoFundMe, and she says its cast-your-net-far approach was preferable to direct appeals to potential donors, who might have felt pressured to give. And paying for the second, third, and fourth years at BU? “Oh, my goodness,” she says. “I’m going to apply for more scholarships, grants. I hopefully will get more, based on grades and whatnot. And I will do GoFundMe again.”

“Since this is a rigorous school, once people see that I just don’t fail out the first semester,” she adds, “maybe they’ll be a little bit more inclined to help me with tuition.”

That these students work hard with their crowd contributions brings up a touchy, potential downside to this fundraising route. Allen was rankled by insulting messages after she posted her account on GoFundMe. One correspondent said “that if I tried harder in school, I wouldn’t be in this position because I would have received academic scholarships” and “that I wasn’t smart enough and should just transfer to a community college.” (In fact, she was smart enough for early decision admission to BU and is relying on financial aid and loans, she says.)

“I was in the top percentage of my high school class and had a very high graduating GPA,” Allen says. “Do not tell crowdfunders that what they are doing is wrong. Crowdfunders are brave for asking for help when they need it. It is not easy to tell the world that you don’t have money to pay for school.…I am here and I am fighting to pursue my dreams, so do not tear me down for asking for help.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

11 Comments on Students Turn to Crowdfunding to Pay for College

  • Asdf on 02.13.2015 at 8:16 am

    Given the horrifically high prices that BU and other universities are able to get away with fleecing the up and coming generation with it’s hardly surprising that students would turn to these sort of desperate measures.

  • Anonymous on 02.13.2015 at 11:30 am

    Yes BU is insanely expensive, and I don’t doubt that people have a hard time paying for it. I commend students for being brave enough to ask for help, but don’t understand how some students can ask in good faith. Take Breanna Allen for example, she is asking for help with tuition but going to the Bahamas for spring break? If you are so tight on money to be asking your peers and strangers for money to pay for your tuition, you shouldn’t be going on an expensive spring break.

  • Breanna Allen on 02.13.2015 at 3:40 pm

    The trip the the Bahamas is not being paid for by my family. I was lucky enough to be offered the trip as a gift and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Respectfully, Breanna Allen

  • Mary on 02.17.2015 at 7:43 am

    Cost of college goes far beyond problems at BU. I went to a local state college, lived at home, worked full time and paid off every penny. I had no “college experience”, no friends or student clubs, no activities or team sports, no extra curriculars or time spent conversing on campus. I parked, went to class, then went to work. This is such a regret even though I am debt free and a graduate student at BU. The cost of college needs to go down but also the worth of the degree needs to go up first. Boston University is a school of excellence and It can charge so much because people actually want to go here. A great balance needs to be found and can I suggest 0% interest student loans. Thank you for your story Breanna and I wish you much success and happiness.

  • Jose on 02.17.2015 at 7:59 pm

    Breanna, with respect, the money for the Bahamas should be redirected to your education. Otherwise you’ve effectively asked people to fund your vacation. Did they know when they donated that you could afford an overseas holiday?

    • Breanna on 02.18.2015 at 2:44 am

      like I said. My family is not paying for the trip and we weren’t given money. We were given a trip. It’s not something you can return and get cash from so why should we say no? It was a present and we are very grateful.

    • Chris on 02.20.2015 at 9:34 am

      It’s not an overseas holiday… check a map.

      • Jose on 02.21.2015 at 8:22 pm

        “The trip the the Bahamas”

        Chris, please check the map yourself. The Bahamas are not a suburb of Miami. Whichever definition you use for “overseas” — to a foreign country, or a place across the water — the Bahamas qualify as an independent island nation.

        Breanna, I do mean “with respect.” You are struggling with many challenges while earning an education, an impressive effort. But this story, & the information you provide for it, raise significant questions. The story itself is muddled. best of luck to you.

  • Heri on 03.02.2015 at 10:49 am

    For students who are doing competitive sports, I recommend sports crowdfunding platform http://makeachamp.com

    There’s a whole generation of Canadian and american students who’ve been able to fund their athletic dreams (+also side expenses) with the platform

  • vikram joshi on 04.09.2016 at 11:35 am

    This Story is the Great Example for all over the world to raise money for their own by crowdfunding and it shows that there are the people who believes in education and humanity. A great Example for all.

  • OK Essay on 12.19.2017 at 4:46 am

    I thought a scheme where everyone pays a percentage of income to some sort of elected body to coordinate its fair distribution as direct payments to under/post grad students and universities based on clear criteria, would be cheaper alround, easier and fairer? Economy of scale and all that, we could even have the students when they had finished pay into the scheme as well.

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