New Sites Empower Students to Build Their Own Scholarships

The Facebook generation gets a new way to raise college financial aid.

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As budget-strapped states and private charities cut back on scholarship funding, a growing number of students are raising money for college through new "make your own scholarship" Web sites. These sites enable students to post pictures, profiles, and appeals for donations. The sites also help them market their appeals and collect and manage their donations. The sites also attract donors by verifying the student's college and offering anonymity. 

While they don't work for everybody, the new sites provide much-needed alternatives to traditional scholarship competitions, which are being swamped with applicants. 

[Check out the Guide to Paying for College.] 

Author Dave Eggers helped start Scholarmatch.org after his tutoring program, called 826Valencia, got flooded with scholarship applications. "It was heartbreaking to have to decide" which six out of 150 qualified and needy students would get some money to defray college expenses, he says. Now that the students who participate in his program are posting on scholarmatch.org, another 10 have received enough donations to fund their first year in college, he notes. 

One of the lucky students, Dorrian Lewis, a senior at Mission High School in San Francisco, spent months writing essays for traditional scholarship contests last year. But by early this year, she had collected just $400, which was nowhere near the more than $3,000 she needed to pay for books, classes, and transportation to San Francisco City College. She spent a couple more weeks perfecting a fundraising profile on Scholarmatch. A few weeks later, donors moved by her description of her love of music and struggle with cancer, had pitched in enough to fund her freshman year. "I'm actually kind of shocked, it happened so quickly," she says. 

But even with lots of tech and social networking savvy, it isn't easy to recruit scholarship donors. After noticing other students try to create Web sites and Facebook pages to raise cash, Henner and Lilac Mohr, who were graduate students at Colorado State University in 2008, decided to create a website where everyone—including themselves—could ask for donations. Only a small percentage of the thousands of pleas for funding on their Sponsormydegree.com have received significant funding, says Henner Mohr. Neither he nor his wife have gotten a single donation, he notes.

[Read 8 tips for creating your own scholarship.] 

One barrier that might discourage donors: unlike donations to colleges or scholarship foundations, donations directly to students seeking money for college don't qualify for charitable tax breaks. Mohr and the other operators of the new build-your-own scholarship sites hope, however, that donors will be willing to trade the tax deduction for the ability to pick which students to fund, and the assurance that the students will get (depending on the site) anywhere from 95 percent to 100 percent of their donation. 

Here are three Web sites (listed alphabetically) that help students build their own scholarships: 

Greennote.com — In mid-2010, new owners turned this former peer-to-peer lending site into a peer-to-peer donation site. Greennote charges $20 to set up a profile and takes 5 percent of the amount students withdraw to cover credit card fees and other expenses. 

Scholarmatch.org — This nonprofit site is free, but currently only features students from the San Francisco Bay Area. The founders are considering eventually opening it to other students. 

Sponsormydegree.com — This two-year-old site started by two Colorado graduate students allows students to post profiles for free. But it passes on to students any credit card fees the site incurs from donors. To cover the cost of verifying the student's college, the site also charges a $5 fee when students withdraw their donations. 

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