2014-01-14

Co.Exist

Forget Designing Your Own Major: Now You Can Design Your Own Scholarship

You don’t have to be a rich philanthropist to create a scholarship fund on this ambitious new crowdfunding platform.

Ah, going off to college. The smell of dry leaves rustling in the quad, the promise of unbridled sexual exploration, and the wonderful feeling of spending your early adult life chained to student debt. For more than 70% of college graduates in 2012, who left with an average debt burden of near $30,000, this is the life.

Financial aid is sometimes an option, but often, it’s not enough. That’s why Cabell Maddux, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, created a crowdfunded approach to higher education. While finishing his undergraduate degree and applying to medical school, Maddux got together with two friends to design a system called Scholarships Expanding Education in which anyone—no large fortunes required—can launch and organize a scholarship in their name for students at any institution.

"This starts with somebody who recognizes the importance of education," Maddux says. As an appreciative Wesleyan alum, for example, even though he doesn't have a lot of money to donate himself, he could create a scholarship to the school in his name and ask his friends and relatives to donate to the fund as his birthday present.

GiveandSee.org isn’t the first higher education crowdfunding platform to try and solve the massive tangle of American student debt, but it does reverse the popular formula. Instead of having students set up profiles that try to attract the attention of prospective donors, Maddux’s site invites donors to set up profiles of scholarships in their name, set limits (GPA and major), and then organize a ring of fellow contributors willing to give money to the cause. In a sense, the idea brings scholarship funds to the masses. Anyone, wealthy or not, could create one to honor his or her legacy.

"We noticed the buzz around crowdfunding for students with a couple of sites that started up years ago, and these were sites where students were creating their own profile. As students ourselves, we thought it would be so hard for us to sell our stories to 100 strangers," Maddux says. "So we came up with this concept of flipping this on its head, with starting with someone who’s essentially the giver, so the student isn’t having to mobilize this crowd of donors."

There are a couple of currents working in SEE's favor. First, the platform recognizes and capitalizes on the changing landscape of endowment funds. Several universities are beginning to realize that, with hefty bundles of debt themselves, recent graduates might not be moved by an institution’s annual fund plea. Instead, those recent grads are likely to give more to the robotics club’s Kickstarter, or maybe an MFA student’s GoFundMe. Creating your own scholarship is another way to donate to a specific project, and even more specifically, your own.

Secondly, DIY scholarships could make good gifts. SEE held a soft launch last month, but since, Maddux’s own family has begun giving away scholarship funds for birthdays and other celebrations. One scholarship fund set up for Maddux’s grandfather, on the event of his 83rd birthday, has raised $550 in the last week for his grandfather’s former high school. Maddux and his team have applied for 501(c)(3) status, too, in the interest of making scholarship donations tax-deductible.

SEE has raised roughly $8,000 of scholarship funds so far, and generated scholarships at four institutions, including Harvard University, Fordham University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Averett University in Danville, Virginia. So far, the volume of scholarships is small enough that Maddux and his team can process them individually through institutions’ unrestricted funds. The challenge ahead, however, will be to design a system that runs more smoothly, with partnerships that expect these scholarships and accept them quickly.

There’s also medical school to consider. After working with field doctors in Cameroon, Maddux has his heart set on going into medicine. Still, he’s focused on taking a year off to focus on SEE, to see just how far he can automate the site’s process of scholarship creation. Maddux is hoping that by the time med school rolls around, he’ll be able to pass the baton.

Maddux is also aware of the fact that some schools might be hesitant to accept donations from SEE, especially if they feel that those donations compete with their own fundraising efforts.

"This is meant to be additive to the current fundraising programs of the schools," Maddux said. "We want to build and provide another access point to financial aid. We want to make this simple for the schools as well."

[Image: University via Shutterstock]

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