Joshua Samuels was caught in a major cash crunch. After taking three semesters off from Kenyon College to get work experience, he planned to return to school in the spring of 2013 to finish his psychology degree. But even after the school offered him a combination of loans and grants, he was short $3,380.
Rather than go further into debt, Samuels decided to try the website GoFundMe.com, where he appealed for help to friends and strangers. Within two months, he had raised the $3,380 plus GoFundMe's 5 percent-per-donation fee.
"It took on a life of its own," Samuels says. "I had alumni contacting me. Friends threw a benefit concert to raise more money."
[Find ways to pay for college without taking out student loans.]
Crowd funding, as this practice of Internet soliciting is called, is better known as the purview of startup companies looking to raise cash. Education is now the second most popular category on the GoFundMe site, says founder Brad Damphousse.
Overall, crowd funding platforms raised $2.7 billion worldwide in 2012, a figure expected to hit $5.1 billion this year, according to Los Angeles-based research firm Massolution.
Parents, meanwhile, can start crowd funding when their kids are toddlers. At GradSave.com and GiveCollege.com, which are tied into 529 savings plans, parents can solicit donations to college savings accounts.
[Learn more about using 529 plans to save for college.]
Each site varies, but generally campaigners are asked to set a specific goal for how much they'd like to raise.
The expectation is that they'll aim to fill the gap between what they can obtain in federal and school-based aid and what they still need to make their payments. The sites collect and track the donations, which can continue after the goal is met.
San Francisco-based ScholarMatch caters to students who might otherwise not be able to attend college at all, connecting underprivileged students in the Bay Area with donors who typically were beneficiaries of college aid themselves and want to pay the favor forward.
Founded in 2010 by Dave Eggers, screenwriter and author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," ScholarMatch also has a strong counseling bent: It offers free financial aid workshops for families starting when their college-bound kids are in the seventh grade.
"This money is do-or-die for them. If they don't get it, they won't go to school, or at least they won't go to the school that they're qualified to attend," says Diana Adamson, the organization's executive director. ScholarMatch, whose average award runs $3,700, plans to expand nationwide after it perfects its model.
[Discover other ways to save on college costs.]
Succeeding at getting donations requires students to be resourceful. Most sites advise crowd funders to post catchy videos as part of their campaign strategy, and they provide tools for publicizing crowd funding efforts on Facebook and Twitter.
Samuels advises setting your sights higher than the amount you need for tuition, so as to cover expenses like books and the fees you'll owe to the crowd funding sites.
"You have to raise more like 110 percent," he says. But the effort is worthwhile, he thinks, if unwieldy debt is the other option. "Go for it."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.