Why some campaigns to crowdfund college go viral (and others fall flat)

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Courtesy of Jordan Shanks

A year ago, Jordan Shanks was on his way to becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college.

Then a freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the teen from Richmond, Virginia, was looking forward to the day in spring 2017 when he could cross the stage, pick up his diploma, and thank his parents—first-generation Americans who had struggled to eke out a living in the Bronx—for all of their sacrifices.

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But that dream came to a screeching halt when Shanks's dad, a facilities manager, lost his job last summer and money for tuition and other expenses dried up.

"Once the things around you are taken away," Shanks said during a recent phone interview, "you have to figure out who you really are and what you have to offer."

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(Courtesy of Jordan Shanks)

Shanks tried to secure student loans, he said, but had trouble getting a company to accept an unemployed parent as a cosigner. Discussions with Howard University about scholarships did not pan out, he said. The university did not respond to a request for comment other than to confirm that Shanks was a student.

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Desperate, Shanks sent out a plea for donations on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.

In the last month and a half, he's raised about $1,500 from 32 donors, mostly in $25 and $50 increments, many of the payments anonymous.

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"I figured, if there's a platform for the story to be told and if enough people at least listen, I thought it would go somewhere," he said, acknowledging that the campaign hasn't gone viral the way he hoped it would.

After all, Shanks has been reluctant to promote the page on his social networks.

Crowdfunding rises as tuition costs soar

Over the last couple of years, a growing number of people have turned to crowdfunding to help pay for college, some with great success.

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Cassie Wessely's GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay tuition at Vanderbilt University exploded over the summer, bringing in more than $50,000 from nearly 1,200 donors.

Boston University student Alexis-Brianna Felix hit her $5,000 GoFundMe goal in just over a day.

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According to GoFundMe, there were 2,298 education-related campaigns that raised about $211,000 in 2011. By 2014, there were 140,439 campaigns that raised more than $17.5 million. While GoFundMe doesn't have information on how many are specifically tied to college, a spokeswoman told Fusion that "paying for college is one of the most common campaign types in our 'Education, Schools & Learning' category.”

As the cost of tuition has soared and student debt has ballooned, more and more young people have turned to crowdfunding as a potential solution.

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But Salvador Briggman, a crowdfunding expert with CrowdCrux, a site that helps people run successful crowdfunding campaign, warns that most campaigns don't go viral.

Those that do are usually written about in the media or shared widely on social networks, he said. It's helpful if the person campaigning has a very compelling story and a clear plan to give back, such as by becoming a doctor in an impoverished area. Shanks' story is compelling—he's interested in social justice and activism. He even traveled to Ferguson, a fact he notes on his personal website—but he hasn't shared the page there.

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"It's sort of the modern day form of begging in some ways," Briggman said, "and people don't like that idea. So I try to recommend that people offer rewards or perks so they're not asking for money but giving back in some way. That could even be a subscription to a blog they're starting or images."

The GoFundMe spokeswoman, Kelsea Little, wrote in an email to Fusion that "the more effort a campaign organizer puts into their campaign, the more they get out of it."

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Photos should be colorful and campaign descriptions should be concise, she said. The campaigner should share the page frequently, she added.

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(Courtesy of Jordan Shanks)

Shanks is still hopeful his GoFundMe page will take off, but the description on his campaign is long, the photo is not colorful, and he hasn't shared the page widely on his social media accounts. This week, he also created a page on ScholarGifts, an education-focused crowdfunding site with the hope he can drum up support there, but it uses the same wording and photo as his GoFundMe page.

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"I didn't want my gofundme to become part of my brand," he wrote in a follow-up email. "A lot of professional contacts I come across look at my social media and website."

His website is a mix of photography, fashion and social justice musings, sprinkled with photographs of the trip to Ferguson that he was able to take through Howard.

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That he doesn't want to dilute his "brand" with a crowdfunding link is understandable, but it's unlikely to get much traction otherwise. Most people don't actively look for crowdfunding pages to support, Briggman said. They run across them on social media.

While Howard allowed him to enroll at the beginning of his sophomore year despite the school's knowledge that he was unable to pay, he said, he thinks they should have helped him formulate a plan to pay for the education. His balance continued to balloon and he now owes $37,000. Eventually, the university did place a hold on his account for spring semester that has prevented him from signing up for classes.

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"I just want some help," Shanks, who has four siblings, none of whom have graduated from college, said, "just some guidance."

Right now, he's living with a friend and continuing to eat his meals at the university dining hall, where he's still able to swipe in with his student card. How long that will last, he's not sure.

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Shanks, who started out studying public relations before switching to English and political science, has been working on a video project that urges people to see adversity as an opportunity for creative thinking and action.

"I'm the kind of person who needs to keep working, producing, doing something," he said. "I didn't think I'd ever find myself in this situation at this age."

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After about six months of unemployment, he said, his dad has found work again. But the family is moving out of their house and downsizing because his salary is lower.

Ultimately, Shanks would like to return to Howard.

"I gained a lot from the experience and I think I can gain a lot more," he said.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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