Photographer: Getty Images

Congratulations, Here’s $10,000 Toward Your Education

GoFundMe gives 10 students a big prize. But don’t count on crowdfunding your degree.

Pauline Muturi moved to the U.S. from Kenya when she was two years old. Now 21, she’s a senior at Florida State University, a first-generation college student aiming to go into pediatric care. She works two jobs and still says she's missed tuition payment deadlines.

“There’s times that I had so much anxiety I couldn’t sleep, because it’s like, you know, you have to work this shift and you have this exam on this day. And it was definitely overwhelming,” Muturi said. But she believes in education. “My degree is the only thing that can really make me something and somebody,” she said.

Earlier this month, she learned she had won $10,000.

Muturi is one of 10 winners in a contest held in September by social fundraising platform GoFundMe to help pay for higher education. Their stories include gang activity, homelessness, single motherhood, and Tourette syndrome. There’s a graduate student who grew up in Guam and is interested in architecture, and a young man who spent part of his childhood on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and wants to fly.

That’s Thayne Yazzie, 25, who already has his bachelor’s degree and said he is about to get an online master's 1 . As a child, he said, he was medevacked after falling out of a tree. Now he's training to fly helicopters at Vertical Limit Aviation in Albuquerque, which has a partnership with Eastern New Mexico University at Roswell, where Yazzie plans to begin related online coursework next year. He wants to bring his services back to the reservation.

Yazzie started his GoFundMe campaign in April, long before the contest began 2  and is the only winner whose page promises donors something in return—his artwork, from a $10 print to a $360 commission to a $50,000 painting.

College tuition has become unaffordable for millions of Americans, with almost $1.3 trillion in federal student debt held by more than 41 million borrowers. Many graduates enter the working world weighed down by loans. It is in this high-stress environment that some people are finding creative ways to fund some of their education costs.

SponsorChange helps people pay down student debt in return for volunteer work, while facilitates gifts to 529 or student-loan accounts. The business model may vary among platforms. GoFundMe, which now offers a guarantee against misuse of funds raised, subtracts fees from donations. More than $1.5 million a month is donated to college campaigns on the platform, according to the company. 

Chief Executive Officer Rob Solomon said the contest is a reminder that people can use GoFundMe not only to “pay your medical bills or when a disaster strikes and there’s flooding or a fire. We want people to know that you can use this for everything where the need arises.”

Crowdfunding your education has its problems, among them pride. For Yazzie, “it was always really hard to ask for money. So I figured by putting art up it would be a way to give back to people who donate,” he said.

You also can't be sure you'll get the money, and tuition payments have due dates. “It’s a Band-Aid,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and the author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. “People are turning to this because they don’t know what else to do. And it’s certainly not a scalable or sustainable way to finance college.”

“I think, in one-off cases where there’s a really compelling story, I’m sure it can work,” said Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress. “But as a regular solution for most people, definitely not.” 

Then there are taxes. In general, money raised on GoFundMe won't be taxed as income. Scholarship money is taxable if it exceeds tuition, fees, and required course-related expenses. The $10,000 GoFundMe prizes aren’t taxable, according to the company. The official contest rules, covering contingencies, say “all federal, state, and local taxes, if any, are the responsibility of the winner” and that “the prize can only be used for tuition and fees at an accredited post-secondary educational institution located in the United States.”

Students are supposed to report scholarships to their schools. GoFundMe winner Alan Gonez, 21, said he’d have to tell the University of California at Los Angeles of his prize. Gonez, who reported a past scholarship and saw his aid package reduced, is worried about the impact of the $10,000.

That Gonez is at UCLA at all is remarkable. In sixth grade, he recalled, students heard loud pops, and the teacher told them to get under their desks. When it was safe to emerge, the kids looked through the window and saw the upper half of a body sticking out of a liquor store entrance. In seventh grade, a 14-year-old friend was killed nearby. Gonez got involved with a gang in middle school. 

When his mother found out, “it broke her heart,” he said. “She was really disappointed in me, and I was disappointed in myself, and I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into.”

He raised his grades, fell back into the gang, and then broke away and excelled academically. He was going to join the armed forces, but his mother persuaded him to try school. He planned to attend California State Polytechnic University at Pomona following three years in community college, when he learned, with a shock, of his acceptance to UCLA. Two of his professors had encouraged him to apply to UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley.

At Cal Poly Pomona, where a couple of close friends and his girlfriend were going, Gonez could have lived comfortably with the aid he was offered. At UCLA, he’s juggling financial aid, an outside scholarship, and two loans. His mother has also helped out. An office manager at a crane company, whose boss paid for his books this quarter, she has long been involved in his education and is a member of the UCLA Parents' Council. Gonez aspires to be a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Muturi, Yazzie, and Gonez all got the same pleasant surprise in the same charming way. What they thought was a video interview as a finalist turned into the news itself. They’d won.

Updates to include Yazzie's education.

  1.  In instructional design and technology, from Full Sail University, Yazzie said.

  2. Entrants put #GFMScholarship on new or existing GoFundMe campaigns. Most of the winners created their campaigns during the brief contest period.

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