Finance Millions of college students are so terrified of loans they're turning to 'Sugar Daddies' for help paying for school

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A 29-year-old Sugar Baby and MBA student talked to Business Insider about her experience, which involves expensive gifts, free trips, and a debt-free degree.

Welcome to Sugar Baby University. play

Welcome to Sugar Baby University.

(Flickr / Jason Hargrove)
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  • A growing number of students are turning to dating sites to find Sugar Daddies and Mommas for help with college costs.
  • Christina, a 29-year-old Sugar Baby and MBA student living in Las Vegas, talked to Business Insider about her experience.
  • She's received over $90,000 for education-related costs, but says the stigma is the hardest part about being a Sugar Baby.

The student debt crisis in the US has gotten so bad, there's a growing group of young women — and some men — who are taking an unconventional approach to paying for college.

Through dating websites like SeekingArrangement.com, Sugar Babies, as they're called, partner up with wealthy, often older, men who want to spend money on them.

Some 2.5 million Sugar Babies identified as students in 2016 on SeekingArrangement.com. Many of these Sugar Babies turned to the site to find someone who will pay for their education so they can graduate debt, and worry, free.

In exchange, Sugar Babies go to dinners, attend events, or accompany their Sugar Daddy, or daddies, on trips. In some cases, they provide companionship or foster a mentor-mentee relationship. In other situations, the terms of the agreement include physical intimacy.

Welcome to Sugar Baby University

SeekingArrangement.com was founded by MIT graduate Brandon Wade in 2006 and now counts 10 million members worldwide, making it the biggest Sugar Baby and Sugar Daddy dating site on the web.

A couple years ago, the site noticed an uptick in the number of members signing up with a university email address, Alexis Germany, a spokesperson for SeekingArrangement.com, told Business Insider. It decided to launch a marketing campaign — dubbed Sugar Baby University — targeting indebted college students and young people who are interested in college but afraid of taking on massive loans.

A few girlfriends introduced Christina to SeekingArrangement.com. play

A few girlfriends introduced Christina to SeekingArrangement.com.

(Courtesy of Christina)

Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion to the federal government and private lenders for borrowing money to go to college. That's more than two and a half times what they owed a decade ago, according to Pew, and it's thanks to higher-than-ever enrollment numbers and rising college tuition costs.

"Some of [the Sugar Daddies] have that 'white knight' scenario where they really want to be helping somebody and saving them from their debt — or whatever you want to call it," Germany said. The average annual income for Sugar Daddies who use SeekingArrangement.com is $250,000 and the average net worth is $1.5 million, she said, although those figures are self-reported.

Sugar Baby students get a SeekingArrangement.com premium account free of charge. A one-month membership typically costs $20 for Sugar Babies and $80 for Sugar Daddies and Mommas.

'What are you looking for?'

To understand what one of these partnerships looks like, Business Insider spoke with Christina, a 29-year-old Sugar Baby who lives in Las Vegas.

Currently an online MBA student at Michigan State University, Christina turned to SeekingArrangement.com a few years ago for help with college costs after her uncle, who previously paid for her education, passed away.

"That was when it finally set in and I was looking at the prices and I was looking at how much debt I was getting in and I had already started my MBA," said Christina, who received her first bachelor's degree in fashion design and merchandising, and at the time was in the middle of earning her second bachelor's in political science and pre-law from Oakland University. "I was like, I can't afford this, I'm going to be paying this off for years and years and years."

Christina is a student, cocktail waitress, and atmosphere model. play

Christina is a student, cocktail waitress, and atmosphere model.

(Courtesy of Christina)

Some girlfriends introduced Christina to SeekingArrangement.com and encouraged her to find a Sugar Daddy to foot the bill. With education as her priority, Christina thought she'd probably be different than the typical Sugar Baby who was after expensive gifts and cash, she said.

"One of the very first messages that pretty much everyone sends, on either side, is 'What are you looking for?' because we want to make sure we're on the same page," Christina explained.

Christina says she isn't willing to have sex for money, though she knows some sugar babies who do.

"I'm not a person that is interested in one-night stands with people who are visiting Vegas for a couple days — that's not interesting to me. If that's what you're going to come at me with, my response is going to be, thank you for the offer, but I'm going to pass," she said.

"On my profile it specifically says, I'm going to school for this, this is what I'm looking for, I would like help paying for my school and my books," Christina said. That's the kind of straightforwardness and honesty that's expected of all users on the site, she says.

Even so, there have been situations where Christina will agree to dinner under her terms and still get propositioned for sex. She's learned "the site isn't foolproof," she says. "You have to stand your ground, you need to have a backbone."

There are expensive gifts and free trips, too

Over the past couple of years, Christina says there have been three consistent Sugar Daddies in her life who have helped her pay for school.

The Sugar Daddies plan and pay for expensive weekend trips too. play

The Sugar Daddies plan and pay for expensive weekend trips too.

(Courtesy of Christina)

The men, at least one of whom is married with children, will ask how much she owes for school and write her a check. In total, Christina estimates she's been given "at least $90,000" from these men and others to pay for tuition, books, labs, and other education-related costs.

"People are more gracious and more willing to do more for you [when you aren't demanding] ... as opposed to someone who's sitting there saying, this is what I'm expecting and if I get less than this I want nothing to do with you," she said.

Christina has been given extra money after finals week so she can pamper herself and take care of her other bills, like insurance and rent. The Sugar Daddies also plan and pay for expensive weekend trips on a whim. But ultimately, Christina says she calls the shots.

"They know that school comes first to me," she said. "If a trip is offered to me or something and I say I can't because I have school, they back off right away."

The stigma is the hardest part

Christina still has two semesters left before she completes her MBA, then she's hoping to start law school. As of now, she doesn't expect to stay on the site when she's finally done with school, "but that could always change," she says.

When she's not busy with school, Christina works as a cocktail waitress and an atmosphere model, a type of model who is paid by wealthy partiers to sit at their VIP table at a nightclub or in their cabana by the pool.

"At the end of the day, it's benefiting me, and it's helping me and my future," Christina said. play

"At the end of the day, it's benefiting me, and it's helping me and my future," Christina said.

(Sergi Alexander/Getty Images for Haute Living)

It's another source of income, so she doesn't have to fully rely on the money she gets from her Sugar Daddies. But the earnings — anywhere from $50 to $100 an hour for atmosphere modeling — pale in comparison to what she gets from Sugar Daddies.

"It was difficult at the beginning to be like, OK I'm getting handed this money for doing really nothing, I'm literally just going to dinner, it was difficult to understand at the beginning," Christina said.

Now, she values the relationships she's formed and is happy with the way she's presented herself to Sugar Daddies, as someone who can have an intellectual dinner conversation and has goals she's working toward.

"I'm fortunate enough to, hopefully when I'm completely finished with school, to say, I have no student loans, I have no debt at all, that is going to be the easiest part [of this experience] for me," Christina said.

But as expected, the benefit to using SeekingArrangement.com hasn't been as clear to the naysayers, including some of Christina's friends and family.

"I've had to struggle with the negative attachment that comes along with being on the site, or saying that you have a Sugar Daddy, it's difficult to have people hear a word and automatically think negative about you, but at the same time, I have to push that stuff out of my mind," she continued.

"At the end of the day, it's benefiting me and it's helping me and my future, and people's opinions aren't going to benefit my future."

If you are accepting, or have accepted, money from a Sugar Daddy to pay for college and would like to share your story, please email yourmoney@businessinsider.com.