The Tuition Black Market
This year, broke students are selling their eggs, dealing drugs, and collecting cans in a desperate attempt to pay for colleges that are more expensive than ever.
It was just days before she started at George Washington University in 2005 that Beth (not her real name) first considered donating her eggs. “I was 18 and lost my university scholarship,” says the Newton, Massachusetts, native. But she didn’t go through with the invasive procedure for three more years, until this April when, low on funds, she finally caved and earned $6,000 in a few short weeks.
“It’s by far the most efficient way to pay my tuition,” says a 21-year-old pot dealer. “Getting in trouble is just a risk I have to be willing to take.”
“I felt so sick, shaky, nauseous, and dizzy that I oftentimes didn’t have the strength to sit up or stand,” the now 21-year-old says. “If it weren’t for the financial incentive, I wouldn’t do again it unless it was for someone I know.”
Yet today, Beth is back in the market to donate. And she’s not alone: Fertility clinics across the country, in fact, report a recent spike in both egg and sperm donors. It’s one of many signs that, for many families this year, the college dream has become a financial nightmare. Some watched as long-saved college funds disappeared in the recent market meltdown. Others struggled to borrow as credit dried up. And still more are simply trying to make ends meet while staring down sticker prices as high as $55,000 annually.
“Paying for college has become a matter of survival—do I buy textbooks or help make mortgage payments to save our house?” says Allen Martin, a California State University-Northridge professor who studies consumer finance. “And some of my most desperate students are turning to illegal or harmful ways to generate income.”
Blood banks have seen more students willing to donate plasma, which pays between $50 and $250 per donation. And one hair broker, TheHairTrader.com, has seen its traffic increase fivefold over the past few months. “It’s a lot of money,” said one Kalamazoo College student, Heidi Fetzner, who told her hometown paper of selling her long locks on the site for $1,000. “You gotta do what you gotta do."
Not everyone’s willing to sacrifice their own bodies, though. In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, 22-year-old Samantha Rae Pritchett was arrested last month for allegedly intending to sell two pounds of marijuana and 70 ecstasy pills to finance her college education. Another student in San Francisco, who has already been busted and expelled for selling pot to his classmates at one university, says he wouldn’t hesitate to go back into business if his bills began to add up. “It’s by far the most efficient way to pay my tuition,” the 21-year-old Palo Alto native says. “Getting in trouble is just a risk I have to be willing to take.”
Another California undergrad, Andrew Squire, has taken a different approach to selling pot to raise cash. On his Web site, stonerdollars.com, he’s soliciting donations to support reforming current marijuana laws—with a small portion of each pledge going into his college piggy bank.
“I knew for a fact that if I just made a Web site that asks for donations, there would be nothing original or attractive about that,” said Squire, who will attend Grossmont Community College in El Cajon, near San Diego, this fall. The effort has netted him all of $28 so far, barely enough to cover a tank of gas. On the other hand, collecting garbage has proven much more lucrative for Grace Bailey, an incoming freshman from Maine. “Every time my parents or friends have a party this summer, I go around afterward and collect all the [aluminum] beer cans,” the 18-year-old says. “I’ve made more than $2,000.”
Other students report selling videogame collections on eBay, joining the circus for the summer, and even declaring personal bankruptcy in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure more financial aid. Graduating in three years is also quickly becoming a popular way to save. Finances were the reason why Syracuse University student Eddie McLaughlin crammed four years of work into three this spring. “The school's a little rich for my blood,” McLaughlin told the school paper in May. “This is about minimizing my debts.”
Schools, for the most part, have not been scaling back financial aid—the stimulus package also boosted the maximum amount for federal Pell grants as well as the HOPE tax credit for families. And parents who have lost a job or face exceptional hardship in recent months may have some luck appealing for additional grants or loans. “But simply saying your 529 fund has been wiped out is not going to be enough,” says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of the scholarship database FinAid.org. “Every parent feels that way right now.”
Indeed, federal financial-aid applications for the first quarter of 2009 were up a whopping 20 percent compared to a year earlier, according to FinAid.org. Community colleges, which rarely turn away students, are busting at the seams as other public universities cap enrollment. Plus, the Pentagon reports that all active services of the military met or exceeded their recruiting targets in June.
Kantrowitz now advises rising seniors to begin looking for scholarship options early. Parents should ensure that college lists include schools that are financially within reach, and no one should count too heavily on merit aid to get them through four years of higher ed. “Another trend is schools shifting merit grants back into purely need-based aid,” Kantrowitz says. “Competition for scholarships has become a lot tougher.”
Plus, facing their own fiscal crises, most campuses this year have been forced to raise either tuition or fees, sometimes significantly. University of Washington students, for instance, will pay 14 percent more in tuition for the 2009-2010 school year after the state cut more than a quarter of the school’s funding as of July 1. “We do need to be mindful that the economic situation has yet to stabilize, and we need to act accordingly,” UW President Mark Emmert told the university community in June.
At the same time, this year has seen the number of private lenders, both for-profit and nonprofit, drop. One of the few exceptions is the new Web site UniThrive.org, launched in May by real-estate scion Joshua Kushner. The site allows needy Harvard students to request interest-free loans of up to $2,000 from Harvard alumni.
At yet another Harvard-spawned aid provider, GradeFund.com, activity this summer has slowed. GradeFund.com is the brainchild of two brothers, Matthew and Michael Kopko, the latter of whom started his own lucrative dorm-cleaning service as a Harvard undergraduate. Students sign up on the site and sponsors, usually family and friends, pledge to pay for good grades. “The worst part is students are so desperate right now and sponsors are getting harder to find,” says Matthew Kopko.
So the Kopko brothers are now thinking of other entrepreneurial ideas to help students finance their education. One is asking corporations, such as Coca-Cola, to pony up dollars to support academic achievers.
“You have to take the attitude that every dollar counts,” Matthew Kopko says, adding, “At the time of greatest need is when people come up with the most creative solutions.”
Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health, and education since 2005.