Higher ed on handouts? SponsorMyDegree helps students beg for free aid

By now, the typical criteria for college financial aid have emblazoned themselves into the collective consciousness of students nationwide: demonstrable need, merit, perhaps ethnicity or specific college major for certain scholarships and grants. A relatively new website, however, aims to circumvent those pillars of the college financial aid system and replace them with a couple of much simpler ones: self-promotional savvy and sheer desperation.

The website SponsorMyDegree.com made headlines and inspired some heated message-board debates this week with its upstart blend of social networking and a process it refers to as "micro-philanthropy." Basically, the site enables student to erect Facebook-style profiles and plead their case to site-browsing prospective donors as to why they deserve, need or just plain really want some help financing their education."I have basically been on my own since I was 14 because I grew up with a mother who was a drug addict," reads the profile of Corinne Montoni, a communication student at Eastern Connecticut State University. "My dad helps me a little but not a lot. Life is tough and I can use all of the help I can get." Corinne wrote that she aspires to a career at World Wrestling Entertainment; other students on the site lobby for donations based on altruistic career goals or recent economic hardship due to the general recession.

Whether this model will amount to much remains a matter of opinion. However, we can say at least this much so far: The site's traffic is rapidly picking up, and at least some students are getting paid.

Husband-and-wife team Henner and Lilac Mohr started the site as CollegeDegreeFund.com in 2008, but changed the name to SponsorMyDegree.com early this year because the original moniker sounded too much like a site for a conventional scholarship fund. In an interview, Henner Mohr told Money College that the couple originally came up with the idea as a way to finance their own post-graduate educations, assuming they would post a small site touting their personal financial need. When Henner, a computer science grad student, and Lilac, a statistics major, found other sites based around a similar concept, they decided to produce a full-blown online hub that could accommodate as many users as necessary.

"We found a couple of students with the same idea," Henner said, " and we decided to throw up a quick website so that every student didn't need to have the technical expertise to make their own site."

Since 2008, their brainchild operated mostly at a slow burn, but a spate of articles about the site in the past two weeks from the likes of The Huffington Post, CNET and The Tennessean, among others, led to a big increase in traffic -- and donations. Henner admits he's not sure why the site only began making the blog rounds now after two years of operation, but he's not complaining about it, either.

"This just all started in the last two weeks," he said, "and it's kind of a mystery to both of us. But it's great, since it's helping to bring sponsorship to the students. We're definitely getting more donations, and much more traffic at the site, absolutely."

As a result, SponsorMyDegree.com recently smashed its own $150 record for the largest donation when one student received $500 from an anonymous donor. However, Henner said that most typical donations range between $20 and $150 -- but that's if the student manages to turn up anything at all. Henner said that the most successful students are those who refuse to play shy about sticking their hand out, and promote their profiles aggressively via their Facebook and other social networking connections. However, most students still wind up netting nothing, including the Mohrs themselves, who now run the site out of their free time at no personal profit.

"We never actually received any money," Henner said. "We still have our two profiles in there somewhere, but now there are thousands of students on the site, and we're competing just the same as them. The students are actually making much more money off this than we do."

Although the site's interface looks rather modest at first blush, the "About Us" page reveals some rather lofty ambitions: "In addition to changing the face of micro-philanthropy and college financing, Henner and Lilac believe that the SponsorMyDegree.com website will change the targeted online marketing industry by allowing companies to strike a deal with students where the students receive micro-sponsorships toward their educations in exchange for paying attention to the advertiser's message."

Thus far, however, the Mohrs are still seeking elusive corporate sponsorships amid the current economic recession. For now, the sponsorships come exclusively through private donors who stumble upon the website and hit on a profile that they like.

So how can sponsors be sure that students are using the donated funds for textbooks rather than shots of Tanqueray? Currently, all donations go directly to the site, and the Mohrs personally contact each student's school (or their lenders and creditors, in the case of graduated students) to verify their enrollment and disburse the funds into their student accounts. It's a time-consuming process, and one that might become unsustainable for a staff of two as the site continues to expand.

"It's really become a lot of work in the last couple weeks," Henner said, "so we'll see how it works out. We may have to figure out a way to make the site earn -- maybe we'll keep ads up or something, but we have no idea. We'll just have to deal with it when it hits that point."

Despite the recent press attention, not all of the coverage has portrayed the SponsorMyDegree process in a positive light. The Mohrs' vision of "micro-sponsorship" seems to have acquired the tag of "cyber-begging" among many of the writers who've covered the site, and the CNET piece in particular reads as a rather derisive shredding of some student users of the site. Comment threads for the articles are also filled with potshots at student users, as when one commenter at the Tennessean wrote that his state's SponsorMyDegree users "have a great future panhandling in downtown Nashville."

Although Henner Mohr admitted that the site isn't going to pay for a student's entire education anytime soon, he still believes the site offers a necessary alternative to conventional strictures in the flow of financial aid.

"People can call it 'cyber-begging' if they want," he said. "I mean, it is a form of begging online. These are people who need help, and they need people to help them. Folks that are negative about it, they don't have to use the site if they don't want to. It's not a big deal."

"In the old days, if you wanted to create a scholarship," he added, "there was a lot of red tape involved, and a lot of money. Here, you could technically create a kind of scholarship out of mid-air. For example, you could target all the alumni from your college with your business degree, and you can do that within half an hour. It allows your average person to immediately become a kind of scholarship donor. And [for students,] every bit helps, wherever you can get it."

Steven Kent is the Dollar Store Dilettante, a blase lad who knows more about saving a buck and stoking his hipster credentials than all his editors combined. His Money College column runs Sundays; send tips and best MP3s of Pitchfork bands to Steven at steven.t.kent@gmail.com.
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