College is stressful enough without having to worry about the faltering student loan market and the credit crisis.
When you add on the "smaller" expenses such as $100 textbooks, and gas money, the cost of attending school can seem overwhelming.
Some Internet-savvy students, however, are using three relatively unknown Web sites to make money online. The best part? There are no long essays or forms required, and no need to worry about getting scammed.
Kim Klein is the kind of student whom schools refer to as "non-traditional." She was a stay-at-home mom to her three kids for 13 years before deciding to go to law school at Loyola University in Illinois.
"It was something I had always wanted to do," said Klein, a 42-year-old breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at the end of her second year of graduate school.
Despite the difficulty of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she continued studying law, and her blog, which was originally meant as a place to reflect on law school, turned into a way to keep loved ones informed about her health.
In the fall, while surfing the Net, Klein came across a blogging competition for the best student blog on CollegeScholarships.org. She applied, but then said she went about her day and put it out of her mind. Not long afterward she was excited to find out that she had been chosen as one of 20 finalists. A public vote on CollegeScholarships.org would determine the winner.
Once word got out that Klein was one of the finalists, more than 9,000 votes poured in, many from people Klein had never met.
"My situation was so unique and so different," Klein said, explaining that family and friends often feel helpless when one is diagnosed with cancer. "People jumped on the bandwagon. So many people said to me they felt like it was something they could do to help."
After winning the contest in October, she celebrated her $10,000 victory in true blogger fashion by posting a thank you note to all of her supporters. "This award could not have come at a better time for me and my family, and we are all deeply grateful," she wrote in her Oct. 29 post. "I plan to use the money to pay some of the principle and interest on my student loans.
"The scholarship was a drop in [the] bucket of law school debt, but every drop helps," she said. "I used a lot of it to pay the interest on my student loans and also used some of it for book and supplies and there's a little left to make loan payments. It definitely helps with keeping up with the expenses I'm incurring."
As it happens, her 17-year-old daughter will graduate from high school soon, and her college tuition bills will begin arriving at the same time that Klein's school loan bills become due.
Today, Klein is cancer free and continues to attend school part time. She plans to finish her degree in May 2009.
Husband and wife team Aaron and Giovanna Villanueva, both 28, are the publishers of GoCollege.com and CollegeScholarships.org. The college scholarships on their Web site are funded by ads generated from their other Web sites. Their scholarship competitions, which also fund awards for women and students of color, aren't well-publicized -- recent applicants found out about them largely via word-of-mouth. In addition to the larger scholarships, GoCollege.com gives out $250 a month to one lucky person who tells them how to best improve their site.
"We spread organically across the Web, we don't heavily advertise," Aaron said. "Unlike most Web sites, we aren't aggressive in our ad placement."
Another way in which they are unusual: GoCollege.com and CollegeScholarships.org don't collect any information from their users. In January 2009, the Villanuevas will launch a free scholarship search site that also does not require that users submit personal information. The two have vowed to never bombard students with offers from advertisers, such as student loan companies.
"We're Internet junkies -- we see a lot of junk on the Web," Giovanna said. "It's hard for a student to distinguish what is authentic information or what is something that's useful versus a marketing message. We want to keep it real."
Eric Velez, winner of April's $5,000 CollegeNET.com scholarship, earned enough to cover the cost of one semester's tuition at the University of Phoenix where he takes classes online. By posting discussion forums on CollegeNET and commenting in other people's online discussions, Velez received enough votes from his peers to win the top prize, which was dispersed into his financial aid account at college. The second- through fifth-place winners also walked away with money.
These scholarships funds came in particularly handy for Velez, whose family was not only supporting his four other siblings but also paying for Velez's medical bills. About four years ago he was diagnosed with Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare disease that typically affects white people between the ages of 30 and 50. Those who suffer from the condition have inflamed blood vessels that restrict blood flow to the respiratory system, kidneys and lungs.
He took steroids and chemotherapy drugs, and worried about losing his hair.
"That was my first thought," he said. "I'm not going to lose my hair."
He didn't, but paying for school became the next hurdle as he set his sights on a degree in counseling psychology.
"The cost of my medical treatment for my condition has wreaked havoc on my personal finances," Velez said.
He received hospital aid to pay for the $100,000 in medical bills, but was still more than $40,000 in debt and had to declare bankruptcy.
After Velez discovered CollegeNET, he became a regular commentator on the site, essentially creating miniblog posts. Other CollegeNET users voted for his posts, with only one vote allowed for each contestant per month. Velez tried hard to develop a positive reputation, and, as Velez said, "make people realize that you are dynamic."
"When I was competing, I was generating a topic every day," he said of his April win. In one of his most popular posts, called "Pagan Jesus," he suggested that there were Jesus-like figures present throughout mythology. In addition to thinking up captivating discussion topics, Velez began using a smiley face logo with his posts to further distinguish himself from his competitors.
The 24-year-old from Lake Geneva, Wis., figured out early on that the site drew a diverse group. "You have to use a wide net to catch as many fish as possible," he said.
He says the CollegeNET scholarship brought "peace of mind that while, medically, I can be almost financially devastated at any time ... my education is at least protected and aided to prevent it from being affected."
CollegeNET.com offers $16,000 worth of scholarships each month and founder Jim Wolfston hopes to eventually offer $150,000 per month. To do so, he has begun inviting corporate sponsors to contribute funds, such as MeadMap.com, a division of school supply manufacturer MeadWestvaco.
Wolfston started CollegeNET about a year and half ago and has been funding scholarships with company revenue derived from hosting online admission applications that allow students to apply to more than one school with the same electronic form. The company also makes money by helping groups, such as schools, learn how to organize and use their space in the most energy-efficient ways possible. The site is growing rapidly -- six months ago it had half of the monthly visitors it has now, Wolfston said.
"We have been a successful firm and have tried to think creatively about how to approach the question of giving back," he said.
A month ago he added a video component to the site so that students can post video instead of writing a comment. He equates CollegeNET's scholarship voting process to that of a political campaign, saying "you have to express yourself in a genuine way, but a way that is attractive to other voters."
The site allows students to decide which of their peers ought to win each month, without a panel of judges intervening.
Wolfston said that although he may not necessarily have chosen those winners who end up getting the most votes month to month, "you have to respect the outcome if you believe in the outcome of the people's choice."
Tricia Will of St. Cloud, Fla., won a second-place $4,000 scholarship from CollegeNET in May, which she used to pay for books and tuition expenses at Grand Canyon University where she's earning an online degree in secondary education.
"I'm astounded and honored that my peers on CollegeNET chose me," Will said. "I had been in the Top 5 before and had been knocked out. That's just the fun of it."
The 40-year-old faces $15,000 bills for each of the four years that she must attend school.
"I thought about being a teacher my whole life," said Will, who works two jobs -- one at her parents' British car repair company and another as a hairdresser. "I love color and cuts. If I can make a person feel good, that just makes my day."
She's now channeling that energy into a teaching career, but one that is tough to afford.
"It's a phenomenal idea," Will said of CollegeNET. "I don't have time to write down a 1,000-word essay on every scholarship I apply for. I have to take care of the house and my family. Where will I have time to write seven or eight different essays?"
Another little-known Web site that's helping students make money is aptly named, somewhat controversially, StudentofFortune.com, a company that pays you to help other students with their homework. There's a fine line between tutoring and cheating, and the site relies on an honor-code system.
Samantha Perkins, 24, came across the Web site one night while working on a homework assignment.
"I read all the facts about it and I thought, 'It sounds cool, I'll sign up,'" she said.
Perkins lives in Texas on Fort Bliss, where her husband is stationed. She began taking classes online at the Axia College of University of Phoenix about 1½ years ago when her husband was deployed to Iraq. She acquired a federal loan, but needed extra income to pay for living expenses such as gas money, groceries and diapers for her twin boys.
While her kids were napping, she would log onto StudentofFortune.com and begin answering other people's questions about psychology, philosophy and science, the topics that interest her most.
So far the Web site has been drawing in new users primarily through word of mouth.
"I told my neighbor about it yesterday since she's just starting school," Perkins said.
By answering 10 to 15 questions a day she makes about $50 a week and uses that money for gas and to help pay off loans. Since she started using the Web site in July, she has made more than $1,500.
She owes about $12,000 after having completed her associate's degree in business, and she plans on applying to the University of Colorado to pursue a bachelor's in psychology.
StudentofFortune.com, which is a little more than 2 years old, was developed by friends Chris Gagne, 27, Nikhil Sreenaht, 24 and Sean McCleese, 24, who says he came up with the idea on the day he graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles.
During his last semester quantum physics class he had been assigned a homework problem that was due the next day that nobody could solve. He tried looking online, but couldn't find any help.
McCleese says his self-financed company is "based off the idea that everyone needs help with something. All college students are experts at something and have no way of monetizing that expertise."
Here's how it works: say there's a math problem that you can't solve. You ask your question on the Web site and list the price you'd be willing to pay the person who comes up with an answer. The person who offers you a solution can modify that price based on what he or she thinks is fair. The Web site then shows you a percentage of the solution online before you agree to buy it.
"The highest price that I can remember was $275. If I remember correctly, it was helping a kid find references to a research paper," McCleese said.
After the transaction is completed, StudentofFortune takes 18 percent of the sale, and the person who answers the question takes the rest. If the same solution is resold, the Web site takes 40 percent of the sale.
McCleese said they try to remove egregious questions that suggest someone is cheating on a homework assignment rather than just asking for help. But McCleese acknowledges that cheating is "definitely something that's going to happen. We all had a lot of moral quandaries about that -- none of us wanted to make a site where people cheated their way through school."
The site gets about 80 to 100 questions a day with the biggest earners being college graduates. McCleese says those numbers are growing dramatically this year.
Perkins said she spends several hours a day perusing the site and answering other people's questions.
"I'm a stay-at-home mom and it felt good to contribute financially," she said.