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As College Tuition Skyrockets, Students Turn To Crowdfunding To Help Defray Costs

David DesRoches
Shawn Brooks, left, and his brother Shane are trying to raise money for college through GoFundMe, an online fundraising tool.

Shawn and Shane Brooks had a problem. They'd been accepted into Morehouse College, excited to attend the same school as Martin Luther King Jr. and other black male leaders. 

But then they got their financial aid packages. 

"When I first saw, like, the financial aid package, it was like, very like discouraging,” Shane said. “Because you're just like, wow like, it's just a bunch of loans, we're gonna be in debt."

Shane and his brother are twins. The only grant they were offered was the federal Pell Grant. Shane said Morehouse was asking each of them to take out $38,000 loans -- just for the first year. 

"Thank God we do have scholarships,” Shane said. "We was working hard, so we have some type of scholarships that kinda covers half, or a quarter of it, but we'll still be in debt." 

They both have impressive resumes. Shawn was class president his senior year at the Science and Technology Magnet School in New London, and Shane was treasurer. They've both spoken at legislative hearings at the state Capitol. They volunteer at different youth organizations, Shawn's a student rep on the local school board. They both graduated in the top 10 percent of their class, and they work at ShopRite. 

But all those accolades and hard work weren't enough, it seems, to pay for college. So they came up with a plan -- use GoFundMe, an online fundraising tool.

"My mom, Shane and I we were like on the bed and we were like, 'Alright, let's get this GoFundMe page,” Shawn said. “Because we were talking about it for like, the longest. And then we finally sat down and did it. We did the little summary, as was like, 'OK, we're going to like upload it, and post it.'"

The twins had no trouble getting the word out. Over a hundred people have shared their campaign since they posted it online two months ago. They're looking to raise $50,000. 

But only three people have given money, and they've only raised $55. Shawn suggests that maybe their popularity in the community is actually hurting their cause. 

"Even though we do have a community that supports us -- a lot of people, on the outside, like we're good, like we're great. 'Oh, they get scholarships, they get this,’" Shawn said. “But they don't really dig deep in our world and like, no, we still got far more. So there's like this false narrative kind of about us, like, 'Oh, they're good.'"

Part of the problem with their fundraising effort might also be because of how GoFundMe works.

We searched GoFundMe for "Connecticut college tuition" and the boys' campaign wasn't there. But there were campaigns unrelated to the search -- like, there was one for autism therapy for a boy in New Jersey.

GoFundMe’s CEO, Rob Solomon, said the search function is something they’re always tweaking. 

“The primary use case for our search box is, you type in the name of the person or -- a little bit more defined information than just 'Connecticut college tuition' for example,” Solomon said. “If you typed in ‘John Doe, Connecticut college, tuition fund,’ we’d probably return that result pretty well. It isn’t always perfect, we’re trying to get better and better at it.” 

About 70 to 80 percent of donors access campaigns through social media, Solomon said, and not directly through the GoFundMe website.

While it’s hard to find data, it does seem like more students are looking for novel ways to pay for college. Solomon said that education campaigns are the fastest growing of all fundraising categories. 

“When you need help, and the systems that are supposed to be there to help you, can’t, then you turn to your friends, family, or your local community, and education is one of those categories that resonates really well,” Solomon said. 

Most colleges, including Morehouse, have been experiencing enrollment declines for years. Tuition is a major source of revenue. In fact, since public investment across the country has fallen by billions since the 2008 recession, tuition is now the primary source of revenue at most colleges.

Put it all together, and there’s less money for schools to help incoming students. 

At Morehouse, its reliance on tuition for revenue has been gradually increasing, according to its federal tax filings. Morehouse didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Andrew Gillen, an adjunct economics professor at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that students start thinking differently about college. 

"We have a very romantic view of college,” Gillen said. “So, you go on these college tours, and you're trying to find the right fit. And that's great, and if you can afford that, great. But just because you like a campus doesn't mean you should spend the extra $200,000 over the four or five years to go there, right? Like, I'm pretty sure if I drove a Porsche, I'd love it, but I can't afford it." 

But Shane and Shawn Brooks would be the first in their family to graduate from college. And Morehouse's reputation remains stellar. That's what costs so much, and colleges bank on their reputation to attract the best students.  

The U.S. Department of Education will soon be releasing data connecting the salaries of graduates to different majors at specific colleges. Gillen says that should give prospective students a better sense of a degree's value. 

Despite the financial hurdle, Shane and Shawn are heading to Morehouse in August. Their mom is taking out a parent loan to pay for their first year. They're hoping that a combination of fundraising and scholarships will help pay for later years.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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