Crowdfunding for college

(Lily Choi | The Oswegonian)
(Lily Choi | The Oswegonian)

Here’s something we can all agree on: College ain’t cheap. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have had my parents pay a significant portion of my tuition bill over the nine semesters of my undergraduate studies, I, too have had to take on my share of federal student aid as of late and while the amount I’ll ultimately owe won’t be nearly as enormous as that of many of my fellow students, it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly looking forward to the financial anvil that will no doubt be dropped upon me come June 2015.

Applying to graduate programs has made financial issues even more apparent, with the total amount I’m spending on application fees alone weighing in at around $350. Money-wise, my future looks pretty bleak.

However, there are avenues through which I can potentially fund a master’s degree, chief among them being crowdfunding, which is not only proving to be a popular source of alternative funding for college but one far less painful-sounding than selling my body to science.

What is crowdfunding? It’s a business model that involves asking the public to pledge their investment in a project in advance of its completion, often with the promise of rewards or incentives for doing so. The concept has been popularized by sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which force creators to set a specific minimum pledge goal that must be reached in order for the project to be successfully funded, while also allowing for multiple reward tiers and “stretch goals” for those who support a project beyond its initial funding goal. If the minimum goal isn’t reached within a set time limit, no money changes hands, which allows consumers to quite literally vote with their dollar regarding which projects get funded.

Although the model has, in the past, been associated primarily with art and science projects (as sites like Kickstarter often prohibit “fund-my-lifestyle” campaigns in favor of projects with tangible results,) a number of sites have sprung up that allow individuals to raise funds to pay for more personal endeavors such as medical procedures, disaster relief, and yes, even a college education. Sites like GoFundMe, GradSave and Upstart give enterprising students a platform through which they can request financial assistance from total strangers in a far more endearing fashion than the average beggar on the street. Though the rewards and incentives aren’t as tangible as those of, say, an independent film project, campaigners are encouraged to regularly communicate with donors and document all expenditures related to their proposed endeavor — this ensures that the money intended to pay for textbooks and supplies doesn’t go to a six-pack of Budweiser instead.

Personally, I think it’s an interesting idea. Having contributed to a few Kickstarter campaigns myself (namely a couple of fiction anthologies and a small handful of indie games,) I’m fascinated by the process itself, and as I said before, I shudder to think about the total cost of graduate studies. Plus, given the laundry list of creative opportunities and accomplishments that I’ve accumulated over the years (for instance, this very column,) it probably wouldn’t be all that hard to convince people that their money is going to a ‘good’ (well, at the very least honest) cause that will likely produce tangible results in the form of a master’s thesis.

However, as well-intentioned and heartwarming as the prospect of a crowdfunded education may be, there’s danger to be had in relying too heavily on handouts from the good samaritans of the Internet. For one thing, campaigners are at the mercy of the Internet and its generosity, which has a tendency to be fickle on a regular basis. There’s also the possibility that a student’s financial aid (especially federal student loans) could be affected and/or revoked if too much crowdfunding is involved, as the student is arguably making others pay his or her federal loans for them (not to mention the sea of red tape that might arise from taxes, as donations may be considered a source of income which, unless run through the proper channels, is potentially taxable.) Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a student whose education is crowdfunded will necessarily get good grades. If a student fails a class, the funder can’t exactly demand their money back, so there’s a risk that the money raised goes to waste.

Regardless, the education crowdfunding phenomenon is a facet of the ever-growing influence of social media that will no doubt continue to develop in fascinating ways.