Students turn to crowdfunding sites to help cover school costs

Feb. 16, 2014 @ 05:53 PM

A routine afternoon for Tamara Hicks is spending three hours with a Starbucks cup, a stack of papers and school-issued laptop, inching toward the promise of a UNC Ph.D. in social work.

She’s working while waiting for her 4-year-old daughter, Skylar, to finish at the Mariposa School for Children with Autism across the street.

Facing the constant drive back and forth from Durham to Cary, pricey monthly tuition for a school that offers personalized autism therapies, and the final semester at UNC-Chapel Hill, Hicks needed money.

Thinking she had nothing to lose, she turned to a crowdfunding website, GoFundMe, on which people can create a profile, introduce their cause and set a fundraising goal. Complete strangers can donate money toward the cause.

Hicks met her goal in only two days, raising $3,365.

“It’s been amazing, it really has,” she said. “I would have never thought that people would come out for me like that.”

Crowdfunding websites are slowly becoming a new way to pay for college costs. On the GoFundMe site alone, there are Durham-based students hoping to travel to the University of Oxford in England to study religion, participating in a Duke teaching program and looking for ways to fund a UNC study abroad trip to Costa Rica.

These people are relying on the kindness of friends, family and strangers. Not all campaigns are successful. Some students only raise a fraction of their fundraising goal and others miss their college financial deadlines due to lack of funding.

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said it may be too soon to tell if this fundraising method catches on with college students.

Relying on strangers online to funnel money into a cause without any oversight is new from the association’s perspective, Draeger said.

“I don’t know if it’s too early to call it a trend or a fad,” he said. “... It’s really about just using technology to do what students have done for a really long time, which is look around in their immediate family and circle of friends and say, ‘Who would be willing to help me basically pay for college?’”

Jesse Huddleston, a 25-year-old Duke 2010 sociology and psychology grad, is in his last semester for his master’s degree in counseling at UNC-Greensboro. With savings running low, he decided to create a GoFundMe profile to try to cover tuition as well as travel costs - he used to commute between Greensboro and Durham.

“I didn’t really have another option, so why not?” Huddleston asked. “The worst thing that can happen is that no one gives.”

His goal was to raise $6,000 in 60 days. He is now at $4,021, long after his deadline.

“Four thousand dollars is a huge difference,” he said. “That semester would not have been paid for if I had not raised that money. I don’t know where that money would have come from.”

“I didn’t make $6,000 in 60 days,” he added, “but I still felt accomplished that for the time being, my needs were met.”

Hicks also is in her last semester for her social work Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is editing her qualifying paper and working on her dissertation, which focuses on the health behaviors of African-American women.

Sheryl Zimmerman, the associate dean for doctoral education in UNC’s School of Social Work, said with coursework, a comprehensive exam, research and a dissertation, students on average take four and a half years to complete the program.

The school has about 31 students enrolled who are at some stage in the doctorate program, including Hicks, and UNC guarantees the students four years of financial support, including tuition, insurance and a stipend.

“If they’ve been in the program for much longer than average, certainly they may at some point need to start finding some additional outside support,” Zimmerman said.

She added the school also offers financial assistance through research assistant jobs and faculty grants.

Hicks’ doctoral degree has been nine years in the making. And to help pay for it, all she had to do was share her story online. She said in those first two days, when the money started pouring in, she ended up crying in a UNC parking lot, overwhelmed by the support.

On May 11, she’s looking forward to walking across the graduation stage and sharing that experience with her daughter.

“We gotta do what we gotta do,” Hicks said. “We don’t have a choice. It won’t be like this always. No one’s thinking about yachts and fancy cars. I’m just thinking about when I graduate, will my insurance cover her therapies?”

“Now it’s not just me,” she added. “I have cheerleaders.”