Tuesday, June 8, 2010

College students seek tuition help through website

By Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • June 8, 2010

One Tennessee student on SponsorMyDegree.com says she's a church going virgin who loves singing and camping.

Another takes a different approach — with a blunt explanation that she doesn't want big student loans to compromise her financial freedom after graduating from the University of Tennessee.

And a Belmont University senior appeals to potential donors' sense of charity: She can do the world a lot of good, she says, if she can pay for her degree in social entrepreneurship.

About 10,000 students from across the U.S. — including 82 from Tennessee — maintain profiles on the website, trying to distinguish themselves enough so that strangers will pay their tuition. Visitors to the site can make donations from $10 to the price of a full semester, with the money going straight to the university a student specifies. The site's creators set it up seeking their own donations for graduate school and expanded it to help other students facing tuition increases.

But experts in college financial aid suggest students exhaust other resources before resorting to cyber begging, which probably won't be too profitable.

That's been the case for Bethany Gaskins, the Belmont senior. Her father spotted SponsorMyDegree.com last year and urged her to sign up.

Her take so far: not a dime.

"You write honestly in hopes to reach someone who may have something in common with you," Gaskins said. "You never know."

With two younger siblings in line to enter college, Gaskins doesn't want her parents to feel the strain. She works at Urban Outfitters and at the Youth Encouragement Services program to pay expenses of $35,000 a year at the private Christian school.

Public university students face increasing trouble paying for college, too, said Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

"If governments continue to pull out, tuitions will double," he said. "Students will shoulder the costs. State budgets can't get prisoners to pay for their rooms, and they have to pave roads. When push comes to shove, what gets cut is higher education because it's a discretionary fund."

People are going back to school in droves because the days of just having a high school diploma and advancing to the corner office are over, Carnavale said. Cyber begging could help those folks, but with so many signing on for sponsorship amid a bad economy, it may backfire.

"It's like when I see one or two beggars, I'll give them a buck," Carnavale said. "But not if there's 10. … There are going to be so many people doing this that [it] is not going to work anymore."

Other sources available:

Charlotte Chavous, 41, of La Vergne enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University's nursing program two years ago. She later went online looking for ways to fund her education and found the site.

After 18 months of waiting and no donations, Chavous gave up on SponsorMyDegree.com

"I was hoping it would work," she said. "It's probably the economy. I wasn't offered anything."

Those who work in university financial aid offices say students can do a lot before resorting to putting their personal business online. It starts with filling out the free federal aid application to see if they can get anything, said David Hutton, MTSU's director of financial aid. And if students want to make their personal interests work for them, they can look for scholarships attached to their specific majors.

"Seek every source you can," Hutton said. "I would look online at the free scholarship searches."

Patricia Smedley, Belmont University's director of financial aid, recommended that students look for help from churches and professional organizations after exhausting the search for federal grants and loans.

"Also, learning institutions have their own scholarships," Smedley said. "There are avenues out there. You have to learn what you can do outside the financial aid process.

"College is expensive, but it's an investment. It pays off."

Founders strike out
The payoff isn't instant, which prompted Henner Mohr of Littleton, Colo., and his wife to launch SponsorMyDegree.com two years ago.

While some students have received gifts of up to $100, the founders didn't collect any. They subtract only credit card processing fees from donations.

Despite their lack of success, they used word-of-mouth to advertise the site, which registers three to 10 members a day.

Mohr thinks the most successful participants have been those who directed potential gift-givers to their profiles using social networking.

"We had looked around for websites for cyber begging and there was nothing out there," Mohr said. "The word has spread and it has integrated (with social media), and it's not too bad. We want to connect students with people who may be touched by their story. It's not for partying."

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