Strong, Crowd, All Mills: Students turn to crowdfunding to finish degrees
With tuition bills steadily increasing, many Mills students have been turning to crowdfunding to make up the difference between the money they have and the money they need to continue their education.
Currently, dozens of active campaigns by current, former and prospective Mills students can be found on crowdfunding websites like YouCaring and GoFundMe, where individuals can create and donate to fundraising campaigns for the cause of their choosing. For many students, crowdfunding became the last and only option to remain in school and finish their degrees.
“I am literally on my last hope and prayer,” reads one campaign description from a Mills student.
Jasmine Stallworth, a senior double majoring in psychology and music, turned to crowdfunding in the fall to help cover the fees for her final year of school.
“I’ve never really been stable. I can’t necessarily say ‘I was stable and then I needed to crowdfund out of nowhere,'” Stallworth said. “I don’t have the luxury of going to my parents and saying ‘can you take out a loan.'”
Without steady income, family support or access to private loans, Stallworth was unable to find the support she needed to continue paying tuition. After reviewing her case, the financial aid office suggested that Stallworth take a break from full-time education.
“I’m not going to take a break in my senior year. I’ve been going to school for seven years now, and I haven’t taken a break until now,” Stallworth said. “This is my only way of being stable […] to get my degree.”
When Stallworth posted her GoFundMe campaign, she was surprised to receive a flood of support from friends, fans of her musical career and strangers alike, meeting and surpassing her goal of $1,500 in three days.
On her GoFundMe campaign page, Stallworth voiced frustration with Mills’ lack of tangible dedication to their stated values of inclusion and social justice.
“Being the great school that Mills College is, they have failed to truly support low-income parenting students to be able to complete an education in a higher institution. They accepted me into the school for my story and my merit but didn’t take into consideration that I would most likely need more assistance,” Stallworth wrote.
Like Stallworth, junior Joy Robinson is supporting children while working to complete her bachelor’s degree at Mills. At the beginning of this spring semester, unexpected charges on her bill and a lack of concrete options on the part of the financial aid office led her to try crowdfunding as well.
“My first semester I was able to handle my portion of the tuition, but the second semester, it went up,” Robinson said. “I was able to go to financial aid and beg and plead and see if there was any additional money, and they said no.”
For many students, paying tuition in full at the beginning of each semester is simply not an option. According to the Mills website, the school offers five month and six month payment plan options, which, in exchange for an enrollment fee, allows students to pay dues monthly instead of by semester.
Though many institutions charge an enrollment fee for opting into a payment plan, according to FinAid.org and USNews, most enrollment fees tend to run under $100. Mills’ enrollment fee is 3 percent of the total balance owed, and can run up to $300. Compared to other nearby schools, including UC Berkeley which charges a flat enrollment fee of $60, and Holy Names University which charges only $52, Mills’ enrollment fees run significantly high.
“I’m already struggling here and you’re nickel and diming me every which way…are you really helping me?” Robinson said. “You see what kind of need I’m in, and I want to do this payment plan, but now I’ve got to come up with another $150 just to enroll in the payment plan.”
For Robinson, crowdfunding generated enough money to enroll in the payment plan and stay at Mills, but it was not effective enough for her to try it again in the future.
“It generated a little bit of money, but I don’t have rich friends, and the people that did donate, I know them personally. I had a real big dilemma of doing it in the first place,” Robinson said.
Though Robinson and Stallworth were able to remain at Mills, crowdfunding isn’t always enough for students to keep up with payments.
Shannon Hale, who was a junior at Mills before financial troubles caused her to leave, struggled for help from the Mills financial aid office from her first day at school, when she was barred from moving in to campus housing on move-in day.
“I was going to the M Center, literally counting my last change in my pocket […] I gave them all of the cash that I had on my person, including coins, and everything that I had in my bank account so that they would let me move into the dorm,” Hale said. “Me getting into the dorms was literally keeping me out of the homeless shelters in Oakland.”
In Fall 2015, Hale was advised by a friend who had successfully crowdfunded for her family to try setting up a GoFundMe.
“Crowdfunding was kind of my last ditch effort,” Hale said.
Hale’s campaign garnered just over $1,000, enough to make the first installment of her payment plan, but after that, her options ran thin. Hale tried to work with the financial aid office, but when the only options offered to her continued to be private loans and outside scholarships, for which the financial aid office had no database or guidance, she was forced to leave Mills permanently in December 2015.
“I feel like I threw myself at Mills and they just kind of dropped the ball with me,” Hale said.
The school has no official policy on crowdfunding for tuition, but encourages students to be careful when choosing this option, as there is no guarantee of raising necessary funds or of the reliability of the websites.
“We do understand that crowdfunding has become a popular way for people to raise money for various things, including tuition payments,” Dustin Smith-Salinas, director of the Mills financial aid office, said in an email.
When Hale finally left Mills, unable to pay the rest of her fees, the hold on her account prevented her from accessing her Mills transcripts. She returned home to Portland and began attending community college, but when she was unable to provide Federal Student Aid with her transcripts, she lost her financial aid for community college as well, leaving her in educational limbo. Only after hand-delivering a letter explaining her story to President Hillman during an alumna event in Portland was the hold lifted, allowing her to access her transcripts and begin to consider transferring to another institution.
“I was so grateful to every single person that donated. I mean, people that I knew that were in financial situations that weren’t much better than mine…even some [of] those people were donating money to me to get me back to Mills,” Hale said.
Of the dozens of crowdfunding campaigns by Mills students still active, very few have been fully funded, and many students say that the financial resources provided by the M Center are inadequate for the diverse backgrounds of Mills students.
“I think they could be a little bit more supportive to people’s needs, and there should be alternative options for payment plans. And there damn for sure shouldn’t be a fee,” Robinson said.
Smith-Salinas has stated that the Financial Aid and Student Accounts Offices are working hard “to help students better understand the true cost of attending Mills College as early as possible so the student and family can make an informed decision if Mills College is the best academic and financial choice.”
Smith-Salinas also emphasized that Mills has awarded students $19.4 million in institutional scholarships and grants this year, and recommends private scholarships, the Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loan and private loans to students struggling to pay tuition.
“We wish that we could help every student cover the full cost of Mills, but unfortunately, this is not possible,” Smith-Salinas said.
Crowdfunding and turning to peers for the help and support they should be receiving from their institution is becoming a fact of life at Mills, and in order to live up to their claims of dedication to social justice, students like Stallworth are saying Mills must begin by providing access and clarity around financial support for the students who most need it.
“There’s this huge gap for students that actually need this guidance and this help because there’s an assumption that everybody just knows how to do it,” Stallworth said. “Maybe it’s been like that in the past but guess what, Mills is changing and the world is changing.”