An E-Mail Plea: Help Pay My Tuition!

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Mike McGregor for TIME

Student entrepreneur, Max Stephenson

The e-mail looks like a scam: "I have to come up with big-time cash," writes Max Stephenson. The 18-year-old is headed for New York University, he explains, but his mom is on disability, his dad works three jobs, and all his grants and loans only cover half of the school's $50,000 annual tab. So to cover the gap, he's hoping 10,000 friends of friends of friends will each put $2.50 in the mail or send the money via PayPal. "If you're worried I am one of those internet rip-off artists, call NYU's admissions office at 212.998.4500," his e-mail continues, "and ask for someone in international admissions — they handled my admissions as I was recruited to play ice hockey for Russia and spent last year there."

The thing is, his plea is legit. And two weeks after Stephenson sent his e-mail to 300 of his friends and his parents' business contacts — and asked them to forward it to anyone they could think of — he says he has already received close to $6,000 from more than 2,000 people. Only a dozen or so e-mail recipients have written to him asking if he's a swindler. "Everybody's been really nice about it," he says. "As nice as I guess you can be to somebody you suspect to be scamming you. It hasn't been, 'Oh, you dirty bleep-bleep-bleep,' but, 'Don't try to scam people.' No curse words or anything."

A recent high school grad from Glen Gardner, N.J., Stephenson is sending out his e-mail solicitation at a time when students' financial needs are expanding and the loan market is shrinking. A slew of peer-to-peer lending companies geared toward the college set — including Virgin Money, GreenNote, Fynanz, and CapAlly — have sprung up in the past year. Borrowers create Facebook-like profiles detailing their backgrounds, interests, and financial goals, and lenders choose the students who seem particularly appealing — or appear most likely to pay back the loan. The companies play matchmaker, then keep track of who owes what to whom.

It's too soon to tell whether this business model will work. Meanwhile, Stephenson is taking a slightly different route. Instead of promising to repay the money, the future sociology major is trying to motivate givers by offering them a souvenir. "If you will send me $2.50 in the next week or so, I will send you a piece of my graduation gown," he promises, in a kind of collegiate variation on relics of the cross. "For $3.50, you get a piece of my cap."

To help keep his end of the bargain in four years, he is keeping a spreadsheet with contact information for all of the donors who did not send money anonymously. Among them is Chris Sperry, a sponsorship manager in Atlanta who put $5 in the mail for Stephenson even though the two of them have never exchanged a single word. Like other donors, Sperry says he wants Stephenson to have an easier time paying for school than he did. "It's a shame that you get saddled with [loans] right out the gate," Sperry says, recalling that during his own years as an undergraduate, he worked three jobs to offset tuition costs. "It's tough to get ahead when you have that anchor weighing on you."

Stephenson's solicitation explains that for safety reasons, he provides potential donors with a P.O. box instead of his home address. And the natural-born promoter also directs PayPal users to route the money using his e-mail address, "In case you're interested, I have plans to use my college education to improve our environment," he notes toward the end of his tuition plea, which explains that AccessHybrid is an organization he set up to help college and vocational students buy fuel-efficient cars. "I found the work incrediably [sic] satisfying," he adds in what would have been a pitch-perfect letter, had he bothered to run a spell-check. (To see the evolution of the college dorm room click here.)