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Crowdfunders save student from dropping out

Nineteen-year-old Kyare Turner was just about to start his sophomore year at Morehouse College when he found out that one of his parent's PLUS loans he was relying on fell through.

Turner had been named the most outstanding student in his engineering program after his first year at the Atlanta-based private college. His goal is to become an electrical engineer. But without the additional loan to cover costs, he would have had to withdraw.

"I called everyone to tell them my situation," Turner said. That included the executive director at Reach Incorporated, an after-school program in Washington that hires high school students to be elementary school reading tutors. Turner had worked for three years as a tutor for second- and third-grade students.

"People wanted to help but weren't sure how," said Reach's director, Mark Hecker. "That's when I set up the GoFundMe campaign. I was looking for the easiest way to provide an avenue to help."

The goal was to cover the first semester's $12,360 tuition (the cost per semester at Morehouse is below the national average of $16,202). In about a day, the online campaign raised close to $15,000, mostly through gifts of about $100, on average, from members of Turner's D.C.-area community, including his former teachers at Eastern Senior High School.

In high school, Kyare Turner served as a tutor with Reach Incorporated. His connections there initiated a GoFundMe campaign on his behalf when he faced financial trouble in college.
Source: Reach Incorporated
In high school, Kyare Turner served as a tutor with Reach Incorporated. His connections there initiated a GoFundMe campaign on his behalf when he faced financial trouble in college.

Still, Hecker said he was surprised by the campaign's success. "I didn't think it was likely, but I knew it was possible."

The funds were paid directly to Morehouse from Reach as a short-term scholarship.

It's not uncommon for students to lose a scholarship or grant midway through college, according to Merrill Lynch financial advisor Daniel Pantucci. More often, he said, "they were in sports or their grades didn't meet the standard they were required to meet and they are really in a hard spot."

Tuition has historically risen about 3 percent to 5 percent a year, according to the College Board, and many families have struggled to cover the growing tab. Tuition increases are outpacing inflation and far outpacing family income, according to Ben Miller, senior director of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress.

While families are paying less out of pocket than in the past, they are relying on loans, scholarships and grants more than ever before.

Increasingly students like Turner are trying alternative approaches. On GoFundMe, the number ofcollege-related campaigns has jumped in the last year, according to GoFundMe CEO Rob Solomon.

Kyare Turner at his high school graduation with Cavena Williams, a former instructor from Reach.
Source: Reach Incorporated
Kyare Turner at his high school graduation with Cavena Williams, a former instructor from Reach.

Initially, the crowdfunding site was geared toward natural disasters and medical emergencies, Solomon said. The recent growth in education-related campaigns "has been staggering," he said.

In the past 12 months alone, $20 million has been raised through the site specifically for college costs. The average campaign brings in about $1,793, according to GoFundMe. The company deducts a 5 percent fee plus a 2.9 percent processing fee from each donation that's made.

To avoid such an 11th-hour plea or the possibility of having to leave school abruptly, "starting early is absolutely essential," Pantucci said of saving for college. "Take that 529 and fund it just like you would pay the utility bill," he said, "adding money on a monthly basis." (A 529 is a tax-advantaged savings plan to help pay for tuition and related education costs.)

Turner says he is already working on scholarships for the following year and is driven to graduate on time. "I know that I have a lot of people that support me and I will repay them through my education," he said.