Knowing that taking a break would mean forfeiting financial aid, Nelson finished the term, worked for a construction company over the summer as planned, and started her junior year nine months pregnant. “On Sept. 4, I was in the labor room doing my homework,” she says.
After her daughter’s birth, Nelson managed to make it work with child care, first from her mother and sister, and then by a day-care center paid for with a grant, financial aid and “always working somewhere.” She was set to begin her final year in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics when she got word that her aid would not be renewed. Her account carried a disqualifying balance, despite Nelson having worked for months to pay down the spring break study-abroad program required for her major.
“My advisers were really saddened, because a lot of times when stuff like this happens people just drop out and you don’t hear from them again,” Nelson says, but she was determined to achieve her goal of bringing sustainable urban farms to low-income communities. She looked for private scholarships and grants, but deadlines had passed. She sought a loan from a bank, but like most college students, she hadn’t yet developed sufficient credit. So she turned to GoFundMe.
“For me to put up the GoFundMe page,” Nelson says, “just because I’m a very independent person, was a last resort.”
It’s a position familiar to many.
“More than half of all Americans, if they have to come up with $400 unexpectedly, they can’t,” says GoFundMe chief executive Rob Solomon. “A car repair can be the difference between finishing college and dropping out.”
The situation is even more dire for the 4.8 million college students — 71 percent of them women, 54 percent single — who are raising dependent children, according to a 2014 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“Paying for college is hard enough,” Solomon says. “Being a single mother while navigating this financial burden and studying? That’s brutal.”
Only 33 percent of students with children complete a certificate or degree within six years of enrollment, according to the report, in part because of all the time they must spend providing child care (often over 30 hours a week). Moreover, most “have no money to contribute to college expenses . . . Among single students with children, 88 percent have incomes at or below 200 percent of poverty.”
Solomon says when the crowdfunding startup first launched, most of the campaigns focused on natural disasters and medical expenses. Then users expanded the platform to education fundraising: everything from teachers requesting supplies to class trips. When the company started to see college students getting support for tuition and incidentals such as books — $60 million from over 850,000 donations for college-related expenses in the last three years alone, GoFundMe says — it looked for ways to encourage the phenomenon.
First came last fall’s scholarship contest. More than 600 entrants vied for the award. Though the GoFundMe team focused on people who are currently enrolled this time around, Solomon envisions future initiatives bringing attention to parents like Diamond Coley, of Washington.
Coley became pregnant sophomore year of high school. As previously reported, she refused to give up on getting an education, graduating high school with honors near her son’s second birthday. After that triumphant moment, however, the single mother had no choice but to take a job starting at dawn working as a public transit janitor, abandoning her college dreams in favor of feeding and clothing her child.
Eight years after her son’s birth, Coley still longs for a different life: “In high school I studied computer hardware,” she says. “I loved taking apart and fixing things like dual hard drives, fans, and motherboards.”
She earned a certification, but she can’t get a job in the field without a degree. Just thinking about working in IT instead of cleaning toilets, about being able to take her son to school in the morning, lifts Coley’s spirits. Having a GoFundMe page, she says, “gave me hope that God has a plan for me.”
Hundreds shared the link, but that didn’t translate to enough to even consider relinquishing her job. Some pages jump degrees of separation to friends of friends and beyond, Solomon notes, but he says that going viral is the exception rather than the rule. The contest, he says, was therefore less about miracle donations and more about bringing attention to the opportunity for students to “leverage their friends, family and community to get the help they need.”
That’s problematic for people like Coley. Almost all of those who contributed to her college fund did so after reading the story in The Washington Post. Her personal network shared the page widely, but she says, “My friends and family want to help me, but they also have kids and sick parents and new babies. They don’t have anything left to give.” Nelson falls in the same boat. Without the GoFundMe scholarship, her page raised $330. If she hadn’t won, the money wouldn’t have covered tuition for a single class, let alone her 3-year-old’s expenses. Crowdfunding is more difficult when one’s crowd doesn’t have extra funds.
Solomon says the company is investigating ways to address one impediment to stranger contributions: the fact that “only donations made to a legally registered non-profit or charity may be considered eligible for donors to claim as a tax deduction,” as the website puts it. It would have helped in Coley’s case. Lisa Caldwell of Santa Fe, N.M., wrote: “I would give more if it were tax-deductible,” and she wasn’t alone.
In another effort, GoFundMe recently released a guidebook and launched a college tuition fundraising hub, a landing page that puts education-related campaigns in the same place for donors and offers supplicants tips for maximizing success on the platform.
As for Nelson, the scholarship she won from GoFundMe allowed her to continue her studies. She’s on track to graduate in May.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.
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