Crowd Funding Tips for Students

Raising funds for tuition requires equal parts marketing and social media savvy, experts say.

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When Amber Boyd got her acceptance letter from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, she sent out the following tweet.

PRAISING GOD BECAUSE I JUST GOT ACCEPTED INTO HARVARD!

— Amber K. Boyd! (@DuhSheRocks) March 9, 2013

When she realized it would set her back roughly $70,000 in tuition, fees, books and living expenses, she fired off another.

Please help me get to Harvard. Click to Donate: gofundme.com/2e7qog #gofundme #fromthecouchtocambridge

— Amber K. Boyd! (@DuhSheRocks) March 25, 2013

Living on her mother's couch, with $55,000 in outstanding student loans from her undergraduate degree at Oakwood University – a private college in Alabama – Boyd, 27, knew she needed to think outside the box to avoid diving further into debt. So the Atlanta native launched "Get Amber to Harvard," a crowd funding campaign on GoFundMe.com.

"It stemmed from two big reasons. One: desperation. Two: inspiration," she says. "I left my job last year, depleted all of my savings and resources, and am already in student loan debt. I just didn't have any other options. I was thinking 'What can I possibly do? I don't want to do the loan route again.'"

Boyd hoped sharing her story would also prompt others to pursue their passions, she says.

In two months Boyd was $15,579 closer to her $70,000 goal, but the bulk of it came from a $12,400 grant from Harvard. Only $3,179 came from donations to her crowd funding campaign.

"I expected there to be a better response, but there wasn't," she says.

[Find financial aid resources for first-gen college students.]

Boyd's challenge is typical of college-bound crowd funders. Many have trouble building interest or circulating their campaign page beyond their close-knit circle of friends and family.

Arianna Padfield, who launched a crowd funding campaign on Piggybackr last month, is trying to raise $33,500 to help pay her tuition at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. The 18-year-old Texan has yet to receive any donations.

"The only thing I'm still working on is how to get my profile seen," says Padfield. "That's basically the main problem. I don't really know how to get my page out there."

Leveraging social media to build a following ahead of a campaign can help students overcome that obstacle, says Simon Tam, 32, an MBA student at Marylhurst University in Oregon. Tam raised close to $750,000 for crowd funding projects ranging from fundraisers for the American Cancer Society to soliciting donations to buy new wheels for his band, The Slants.

"People launch crowd funding and sometime naively think just because they have a page out there someone's going to find it," he says. "The reality is that it requires a lot of hard work."

Creating a blog or using a consistent Twitter hashtag can help people develop a fan base, Tam says.

"Once they understand you and trust you, then you can make the ask," he says.

That approach helped David Levitz raise $5,200 in 2011 to pay for a summer acting program at Northwestern University.

A regular video blogger, Levitz, who turns 19 this week, has amassed nearly 18,000 followers on his YouTube channel since launching it in January 2010. When he mentioned his crowd funding campaign at the end of one of his videos, that network sprang into action.

"My YouTube subscribers basically paid for my program," says Levitz, now an acting and journalism double major at the University of Minnesota.

[Learn how to pay less for your college degree.]

But his crowd funding campaign was not a one-and-done effort. He kept the momentum going by posting multiple videos to his channel, CircleNoStar, and regularly posting links to his campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

"You have to be consistent and a little bit aggressive," he says. "You can't be shy about getting the word out there."

Boyd, the soon-to-be Harvard graduate student, has been anything but shy. The former marketing professional launched a website where she posts weekly blogs and has an online store where people can purchase goods ranging from vegan cake mixes to studded wallets made by Boyd's more crafty friends.