When Salina Vang begins her studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth next week, loans and scholarships will cover most of her expenses. To cover the rest, she launched a fundraising campaign on the website GoFundMe, which allows users to pull in donations from friends, family and strangers.
“I needed the extra money to go buy materials like school supplies, bed sheets, a laptop,” she says.
Initially, Vang figured she'd get small contributions from friends and relatives and raise a few hundred dollars. But then she boosted her goal to $3,000 in order to have more of a financial cushion. She's two-thirds of the way there.
Vang's parents, immigrants from Laos, don't make much money selling vegetables, and they have ten children to support. But, Vang says, they don't like the idea of their daughter asking for hand-outs.
“My parents grew up in a culture where it's embarrassing to do that. But I think I have tried to tell my parents that in this generation you need to put yourself out there in order to get help,” she says.
More than 150,000 students have tried raising money on GoFundMe, up from a couple hundred students just four years ago. Other sites, like GreenNote and GiftofCollege, focus exclusively on raising money for educational expenses. The sites charge a fee or take a cut of the donations. GoFundMe takes 5 percent.
Students are turning to these sites at a time when tuition and student loan debt levels are on the rise. Ruth Hedges, executive of the Global Crowdfunding Convention and Bootcamp, says many students’ efforts fail.
“There's this misconception that if you build it they will come. And the truth of the matter is it's much more complicated than that,” says Hedges.
Hedges says you should launch a campaign with a few donors lined up in advance so that a quarter of the goal is met in the first week. That kind of success breeds success.
How to get the most from your crowdsourcing campaign
Look successful. Get donors to commit funds before launching the campaign, so that you have 25 percent of your goal met in the first week. You want a rush of activity when the site goes live.
Create a sense of urgency. Limit your campaign to 30-45 days.
Get social. Start hitting social media days before the launch, and keep it up throughout the campaign.
Sell yourself. Make a compelling case for why strangers should donate to your campaign. Explain how you’ll use the money productively for college.
Smile for the camera. Include a video with your profile.
Source: Ruth Hedges, Global Crowdfunding Convention and Bootcamp
She notes that kids entering college are actually well poised to raise money through social networks because they have a lot of them – think school orchestras or sports teams.
“They have more groups of crowds in their lives than they may have later on in life, when they get older and they're not involved in so many activities,” she says. “And that's the time to compel those groups to support you.”
There are some risks to raising money for college this way, though. Scott Weingold, managing director of College Planning Network, says successful campaigns could jeopardize financial aid.
“It appears that some schools may treat that as outside funds and simply diminish the amount of aid that the family would've otherwise been eligible for,” he says.
In that case, the crowdfunding campaign might do more to help the college lower its costs than it would the student.