Just a few months ago, 22-year-old Francina Akuazaoku was going to drop out of school.
The third-year television and film student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. couldn’t pay her tuition, but not for lack of trying.
Akuazaoku earned just over $20,000 working retail and waiting tables the year before, but still didn’t qualify for many of the grants that helped her in previous years.
As the semester came to a close, Akuazaoku, pictured above, tried to raise the tuition money she needed by setting up a snack stand with her mother and through crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding is best known for collecting money for community events, to pay for medical bills, to support crime victims or more frivolous endeavors such as to make potato salad.
But students have turned to crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe to offset the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses of going to college. Last year, a Boston University student raised almost $9,000 on GoFundMe to go towards the school’s nearly $60,000 a year tuition costs.
“I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so I’m figuring out all of these things on my own.”
Akuazaoku wasn’t as fortunate: “It was so hard to get people to take it seriously,”she said. “People were so hesitant about it.”
But her luck changed when a comment on the photo-sharing app Instagram saw her promoting her GoFundMe page pointed her to a startup geared toward students in her situation. At first, she was skeptical.
“When you tell people why you’re [crowdfunding], selling snacks, it’s just like, ‘I know you don’t believe me,’” said Akuazaoku, who was GoPYT’s first student. “But why should they believe you?”
But GoPYT, which stands for “Go Pay Your Tuition,” works like traditional crowdfunding sites yet is strictly for paying school costs and will help use the money raised to secure additional financing. The money students raise is paid directly to the school, said app founder Stacie Whisonant. “Because it’s a new process, we will work with the school’s financial aid department to let them know the money is coming.”
Students who sign up are vetted through an application and interview process. GoPYT looks for students taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses with at least a 3.0 GPA, but has an avenue for students who don’t meet that criteria. And if a student leaves school or doesn’t enroll, the crowdfunded money is donated to charity.
GoPYT launched its Android-only app in 2014 and specifically targets students like Akuazaoku who may not have financial support from their family or whose parents don’t want to or can’t cosign a loan. In other words, students who can face unique challenges on the path to college and are more likely to drop out because of finances.
Despite taking out federal student loans, Akuazaoku still found herself $10,000 short and didn’t qualify for private loans without a cosigner because she’s an independent student.
Akuazaoku’s mother struggled with addiction, and she and her eight siblings ended up in foster care. Their grandmother eventually took them in and became their legal guardian, but Akuazaoku was emancipated when she turned 18.
Independent students are a legal classification: They become independent because they are married, have a single parent from whom they are emancipated, are older than 24, are in the military, are an orphan, or come from the foster care system. Veterans and homeless students, or those at risk for homelessness, are also considered to be independent, according to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid.
But unlike traditional students, independent students’ financial aid is based on their earned income, rather than their parents’ and the school’s cost of attendance. It can be much more difficult to find extra funds if the tuition bill outpaces student aid.
Dependent students can get their parents to co-sign loans or get their parents take out private loans on behalf of their children in part because they generate higher incomes or have other collateral, such as a house, that can be used to pay the loan. That’s because the risk of borrowing is leveraged by how much parents make and could potentially pay towards the loan.
Working independent students aren’t eligible to take out sizable loans on their own, in part because they earn considerably less due to lack of education and slim work experience.
Akuazaoku worked full-time for over two years, and through federal grants, was able to finish her associate’s degree — debt free — from the University of the District of Columbia Community College.
But when she transferred to Howard University last year, which costs over $24,000 a year for tuition alone, she didn’t qualify for the same aid she got before because her income was higher. Also, the aid low-income students receive may not be guaranteed year-to-year depending on the applicants’ neediness and budget cuts.
“Timing is really key. You might have the money, but you don’t have it when you need it.”
Money is the number one reason why students don’t finish college. And the prospect of taking on five-figure student debt is enough for some would be college graduates to drop out in favor of getting job experience.
“I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so I’m figuring out all of these things on my own,” Akuazaoku said. “After doing all of this, getting accepted — that was so exciting! — never did I think that the financial part would be keeping me from school. I thought there has to be some program out there for students in my situation.”
Nearly half of college students would drop out because of debt, according to a debt survey released last year. And just as many students said they would’ve skipped college all together if they knew about the difficulty of managing student loans.
But many school costs aren’t tuition related, said Joe Valenti, director of asset building for the Center for American Progress, which funds ThinkProgress, in Washington, D.C.
One criticism of Obama’s free tuition plan for community colleges is that it doesn’t address the other costs of going to school: Books, computers, living expenses, child care, transportation, and even the cost of not working or having to work less.
“And some of those costs you can meet through federal grants or loans but you often have to wait until the semester starts,” Valenti said. “Timing is really key. You might have the money, but you don’t have it when you need it.” Crowdfunding doesn’t replace student loans, but gives students an alternative to help cope with the rapidly rising and sometimes unexpected costs associated with going to college.
Higher education advocates regard federal loans as the best way students can pay for college outside of paying in-full and out-of-pocket. That’s because they come with a set of protections required by law, such as income-based repayment, deferring payments, and discharging the debt if the borrower dies or becomes permanently disabled, Valenti said. But while private loans can have lower interest rates, they may also lack flexible repayment terms found with federal loans.
GoPYT also has a lending component, and through bank partnerships, can help students get low-interest private loans up to $10,000.
Crowdfunding doesn’t replace student loans, but helps with the unexpected costs associated with going to college.
“Students aren’t making it to their goal through crowdfunding alone,” Whisonant, GoPYT’s founder said. GoPYT takes what students raise on their own or through crowdfunding, and leverage it to meet their goal with a loan.
With GoPYT, students can get the loan without a cosigner as long as they come up with 20 percent of their goal through crowdfunding or other means.
But it does hit a pain point for students who have exhausted all of their federal aid and grant options, and don’t have the family support or can’t get a cosigner.
Middle-income and high-income students are taking up the lion’s share of total education debt. Low-income students used to be the top borrowers in the early 1990s, owning 40 percent of the overall student loan debt, according to Pew. As of 2012, they account for only 28 percent.
Since launching in June, 20 students have successfully used GoPYT to pay for school with 175 more waiting in the pipeline — many of whom are rising high school graduates anticipating budget shortfalls.
Spring semester classes just started, and Akuazaoku is going to have to a tuition gap again that will hopefully will be filled with more scholarships.
“I’ve been on HBCUConnect, which is a scholarship site (for students at historically black colleges and universities), and I’ve been doing essays and contests,” she said. “I feel like, me being so worried about the financial situation last semester, I didn’t do as good [academically] as I could have.”
But she’s grateful for being able to continue you her studies. “The glove fit basically in this case for me,” she said of GoPYT. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of people.”
An earlier version of this story said student debt could be discharged in bankruptcy. For clarity, that part has been removed. Federal and private student loans are only discharged during bankruptcy in rare circumstances.