With The Rise Of Crowdfunding In Higher Education, Donating To Your Alma Mater Could Be Cool Again

Colleges and even students themselves are starting to experiment with better ways to motivate alum–especially millennial alum–to give back to their schools.

With The Rise Of Crowdfunding In Higher Education, Donating To Your Alma Mater Could Be Cool Again
[Image: Hannamaria via Shutterstock]

While the average college graduate owes some $27,500 after walking away from the quad, students at New York City’s Cooper Union have had a sweet deal for more than a century–entirely free tuition. Now, they are attempting to keep it that way after the embattled administration announced it would be begin charging next year.


By launching the One Year Fund website, the architecture students are aiming to crowdfund the entire incoming class. Current students are asking alumni and supporters to fund a full year of tuition for the class of 2014, making sure that incoming students access the same opportunities as they, and past generations, have had.

Could they succeed? And why aren’t more students considering crowdfunding?

Granted, the Cooper Union school of architecture’s incoming class size is 30, and the founders of the One Year Fund site explain that they only mean the project to be a temporary measure. Yet the One Year Fund has already raised more than $60,000 in just a few days of existence, and students are hoping to raise $600,000 by January 6. And while Cooper students, alumni, and the administration struggle to keep the school’s spirit of free tuition and meritocracy alive in the face of a crumbling financial situation, it turns out that many major institutions are already embracing crowdfunding as a part of their fundraising strategy.

Crowdfunding higher ed has gotten more popular in recent years, though maybe not to the degree of funding entire classes. Indiegogo has adopted an education section, and companies like Pave invite backers to “invest” in promising young students with high potential incomes. Vittana does the same thing with microloans in developing countries, and enterprising students are increasingly soliciting tuition help on sites like Gofundme. Then there’s NYU professor Andrew Ross and the Occupy Wall Street activists’ Rolling Jubilee, which has succeeded in buying up some $15 million in personal debt, including student loans.

Most of these deal with loans and debt in some manner, but the Ivies and major public universities are also beginning to embrace the rise of straightforward, crowdfunded education, too. A year ago, Andrew Gossen, senior director for social media strategy at Cornell University’s office of Alumni Affairs and Development, helped the school develop a series of pilot crowdfunding projects. Today, he’s something of an evangelist for integrating crowdfunding into traditional giving procedures–he sees it as a primary tool to engage younger donors.

“I’ve been convinced that higher ed’s needed to start dealing with crowdfunding seriously in 2009, when I began to see evidence of people giving to colleges and universities through Facebook newsfeeds,” Gossen said. “With the emergence of crowdfunding platforms, people can raise money for things happening at institutions that they feel are important without the involvement of the fundraising operation, and that’s a pretty significant shift in the landscape.”


Gossen’s data show that some of the most difficult groups of alumni to motivate–Millennials–are more inclined to give when they know precisely where their money is going. Crowdfunding offers up the opportunity to fund specific projects, and not just an ambiguous annual fund. Gossen, for example, has worked on crowdfunding projects that would boost Cornell’s LGBT office and its engineering program. This year, Cornell started working with USEED, a fundraising platform designed to mobilize these kinds of projects. And since, USEED has also partnered with Arizona State University and the University of Virginia to accomplish the same thing.

But what about funding tuition for an entire class?

Gossen isn’t quite ready to join hands and jump off the ideological ledge on that one. He brings up the point that it’d be difficult to do what Cooper Union architecture students are doing at Cornell, or say a Penn State, where the entering undergraduate class is nearly 30,000. Then there’s the possibility that crowdfunding tuition could be redundant, or potentially compete with more traditional donor outreach. Instead, Gossen thinks crowdfunding is best applied when it goes to highly specific projects that shape an education, but may be outside the bounds of regular tuition.

And yet, as millennials become new donors (assuming we overcome our rampant narcissism/helplessness and move out of our parents’ basements, that is), Gossen sees crowdfunding as an essential strategy, and one to which universities will have to adapt old ways of seeking out an endowment.

“If we recognize that people are going to use crowdfunding whether we like it or not, and position that in a way to embrace it instead of taking the place of the stereotypical, humorless administrators who say that’s not going to happen, that’s the only way forward,” Gossen said. “If we don’t acknowledge that the crowdfunding donor experience is a positive thing, we’re in danger of losing attention from a lot of folks whose attention we can’t afford to lose.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.