GSPM student turns to social media for help paying off debt

When Autumn Alston realized she couldn’t pay GW the roughly $4,700 she owed after she took a fundraising course in the Graduate School of Political Management this summer, she decided to use what she learned in the class to pay off her debt.

With health problems that prevented her from working full time until two months ago, Alston created a crowdfunding page last week to raise the money she owes. Once she can pay off that balance, she will be able to re-enroll in graduate classes.

So far, she’s received $620 in donations. Most of that has come from one anonymous donor, who gave her $500.

“She left a really nice message telling me to pursue my dreams and better the world. It was really sweet, something you don’t expect from strangers,” Alston said.

Though Alston hasn’t raised much money, she joins a small but growing group of college students creating websites and taking to social media to partly pay for college. Crowdfunding tuition dollars has become more popular as costs skyrocket nationwide and students see webpages go viral. Students at schools like Vanderbilt and Boston universities have recently used GoFundMe.com to cover tuition fees.

Christopher Denhart, the chief research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said crowdfunding is still a pretty uncommon way to pay for college. He said it’s often difficult for students to convince others to repay the debt they’ve incurred.

The fundraising efforts are often more successful when students have a touching story that explains why they need the money, Denhart said.

“If you have an interesting story or some sort of Cinderella story or you come from some sort of background that wouldn’t allow you to go to this school, those personal stories pull on the heartstrings and make your fundraising experience a little more successful,” he said.

Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, called crowdfunding a “relatively minor phenomenon,” and said most people are unsuccessful when they ask for money online.

“Let’s say 1 percent of [college students] were getting money through what is essentially a sophisticated form of begging. That would be 100,000 students. I doubt there’s 100,000 students successfully raising a lot of money,” Vedder said.

Alston graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2012 with a degree in political science. She had hoped to work on a campaign or for a nonprofit organization, but said she started to experience chest pains and fatigue that kept her in bed on her worst days.

Doctors struggled to diagnose her for a year, and she said she couldn’t afford health insurance because she hadn’t yet found a job. She has since been diagnosed with spinal structure problems, which she said were originally misdiagnosed.

“I do take personal responsibility, but what happened to me personally and health-wise when I graduated was totally not what I would expect. It’s not what anyone would expect,” Alston said.

While being unable to work after graduation was stressful, she said she was more worried about regaining her health.

“My first priority was getting better. You don’t think about loans and money when you’re going through what I went through,” she said.

Alston said she launched the crowdfunding campaign after friends had successfully raised money for scholarships and costly medical procedures online, but was still surprised it brought in three donations after she just shared the link on Facebook and Twitter.

She hopes to work in politics, either for a campaign or potentially as a politician herself. She said she was most passionate about women’s and diversity issues.

“I try to give a little snippet about why I need it,” Alston said. “I’ve tried to come up with ways that don’t sound like I’m begging for anything.”

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