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Season of Kindness

Crowdfunding College: More Students Depend on Kindness of Strangers

When the desire to go to college exceeds your ability to pay for it, you need to get creative. For a growing number of students, that means asking others for help through crowdfunding.

Educational funding is one of the most popular categories on the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe. So far this year, about 130,000 educational GoFundMe accounts have been created, raising a total of more than $20 million. By comparison, the 140,000 accounts opened in 2014 raised $17.5 million - and that was an increase of 280 percent from the year before.

"It makes total sense," said Kelsea Little, media director for GoFundMe. "College is becoming increasingly more difficult to pay for and scholarships are becoming more competitive, so crowdfunding offers a brand new and fresh alternative that anyone can take advantage of."

Victor Sosa, a 20-year old student at Alma College in Michigan, turned to GoFundMe to help pay for his first year at school. He plans to study business administration.

Sosa is already working more than 40 hours a week at two part-time jobs and is getting support from his family. Having run out of options, he talked to a financial counselor at the college who suggested he try going public.

Victor Sosa GoFundMe

"It's really surprising to me that some people I have never met were willing to help me out and contribute to my education," Sosa said. "The support from everyone is very much appreciated."

Sosa received 16 donations totaling of $2,000 in little more than a week. He told NBC News he is "very optimistic" he will reach his goal of $6,000.

"It's definitely a great way to get your story out there and for people to learn about you," Sosa said.

Free money is always good

The cost of higher education is staggering - and it continues to increase.

The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014-2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board. Students attending public colleges in state got a relative bargain, paying an average of $9,139, it said.

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"Crowdfunding can be a very effective way to avoid going into debt while pursuing a degree," said Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "With student loan debt reaching $1.2 trillion in the United States, students have plenty of incentive to become more resourceful as they explore different ways to pay for college."

Carley Schwoerer GoFundMe

That's what 20-year-old Carley Schwoerer of Seattle needed to do. She starts classes at Alderleaf Wilderness College next week. Schwoerer plans to study biology and the environment. After graduation she wants to teach people how to live more sustainably.

Schwoerer took out a loan to pay for half the $11,000 tuition. She also plans to work while going to school, but it's a minimum wage job.

"I was really stressed out," she said. "My mom told me that if I wanted to do this, I should go for it and she mentioned GoFundMe."

Schwoerer created her page that day.

She calls it an "especially strange and humbling experience" to ask for money, but says it gave her a lot of self-confidence.

Schwoerer still has a long way to go to hit her goal of $20,000. But in about a month, 21 people have donated $2,260.

"I am delightfully shocked," she said. "I did not expect anybody to contribute to my education and it's been amazing. I'm just so overwhelmed."

It takes a village

As hundreds of thousands of students have learned, if you're willing to put yourself out there, and make a compelling case for financial help, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Twenty-three year old Jasmine Roy from Palm Springs, California, just started classes the University of La Verne College of Law in nearby Ontario. Roy is the first member of her immediate family to attend college. She worked two jobs and received scholarships and it still wasn't enough to cover all her expenses.

Jasmine Roy GoFundMe

In six months, her GoFundMe page has raised $1,330 which enabled her to visit several of the law schools that accepted her, pay the tuition deposit at La Verne and buy books.

"I am completely overwhelmed," Roy said. "It's so amazing that so many people supported me."

The generosity of people to help these struggling students is truly impressive.

Nearly 800 people - most of them strangers -- have donated nearly $22,000 to the tuition fund for Maurice Osborne of Brooklyn, New York, in less than two weeks. Osborne hopes to go back to school to become a nurse.

The site for the 37-year-old was created by a volunteer at a local woman's shelter who heard the story of how Osborne stopped an attempted rape on a subway platform in mid-August.

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"He's living in a homeless shelter. He has medical bills and student loan debt and he needs a break, so a group of us decided it would be a good idea to do something for him and pay it forward," said Bridget Bechtel, who started Osborne's page. "We didn't expect it to grow as much as it has. Our goal was $5,000 and even then we had our fingers crossed."

A few notes of caution

As with any online appeal for money, donors need to be careful. That page could be created by a scammer. Don't assume the website has vetted the person or the information they provided.

"With millions of campaigns, there's no way for us to check the details of each one, so we always ask that potential donors only give to people they personally know and trust," said GoFundMe's Kelsea Little.

More Tips for Crowdfunding Your College Education

And anyone who plans to create an online campaign needs to find out about any costs involved. The NFCC's Bruce McClary points out that some services charge a percentage of the amount raised, and may also pass along fees for processing donations made by credit card.

"Understanding the terms and conditions makes it easier to find a fundraising service that is the best match for your needs," McClary said.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.