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 pay for college.
Through sugar baby dating websites, sugar babies, as they're called, partner up with wealthy, often older, men who want to spend money on them.
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
A couple of years ago, the site noticed an uptick in the number of members signing up with a university email address, targeting indebted college students and young people who are interested in college but afraid of taking on massive loans.
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 many sugar daddy sites is $250,000 and the average net worth is $1.5 million, she said, although those figures are self-reported.
'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.
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Currently an online MBA student at Michigan State University, Christina turned to a sugardaddy site 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."
Some girlfriends introduced Christina to the site 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 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.
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 a sugar daddy site 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."