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High school student tries panhandling to raise college funds

Student loan debt is on the rise — so much so the class of 2015 was the most indebted in history. According to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors, the average graduate of that year will have to pay back more than $35,000. With that prospect looming, one high school student decided to try and raise the money on her own in a rather unique way: panhandling.

“I appealed to all of my schools to get more financial aid and was rejected,” Emily Stutz, 18, told TODAY. “I had to think of something.”

Emily Stutz
Emily Stutz stood outside her local Target over the weekend to beg for money for college.

The star student, who says she maintained a solid 4.0-4.5 GPA all four years, was forced to take desperate measures as the May 1 commitment deadline quickly approached and she couldn't take out a loan. So, she decided to create a fundraising page online where she revealed the lack of financial aid she received could prevent her from going to college. She coupled her social media campaign by standing outside a Target store in Lowell, Massachusetts, over the weekend with a sign that read: "H.S. Senior. No $ for college. Anything helps."

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“Panhandlers are on every corner in my city,” said Stutz. “People give them money all the time, so I figured I’d do a social experiment to see how much money I would actually make if people knew their money was going to a needy student.”

Her experiment was successful beyond her wildest dreams. “I made over $600 over two days standing for three hours each day,” Stutz revealed. She also received over $18,000 on her GoFundMe page since posting it on April 14.

"My parents have had immense financial struggles and simply cannot come up with $20,000-$30,000 a year, nor are they able to cosign a loan for me," she wrote on the site. "I have no other adults in my life who are able to co-sign and I am at a loss. I see my dream of becoming a doctor slip further and further away as the days pass by, so I've decided I am going to do whatever it will take to get myself to college."

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The $30,000 amount would cover one year of private school, but Stutz admitted that she is still keeping her options open and would consider going to a University of Massachusetts school, which is only $13,500 a year if she lived at home. “I’m considering all of my schooling options and thinking about what would be financially smartest for all four years and not just one,” she said. “I’m not saying 'no' to going to the cheapest school, but this was more about raising attention to the issue, not the raising money. I'm not the only one who is out there who has worked hard and is not able to fulfill a dream.”

In fact, more than raising the money, Stutz was happy to just have a public voice for thousands of other students facing the same issue. “It's such a big issue with the presidential election and I wanted to get my message out,” she added. “I want people to realize that even those who work extremely hard and have big dreams aren't able to complete them because of finances. It shouldn’t be this way. People take out these huge loans and have to pay back like a mortgage on their education. It's not fair.”

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Stutz isn't the only one taking notice of the great lengths students are going to in order to attend college. Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has made affordable college a pillar of his campaign, pushing for free tuition at public universities and colleges. President Barack Obama renewed his push to implement free community college for two years and Hillary Clinton proposed new federal government spending that would help undergraduates pay tuition at public colleges without needing loans.

"Student debt has become the new normal," Andrew Josuweit, CEO and co-founder of Student Loan Hero, told TODAY. “Americans are fed up with their student debt, as evidenced by their delayed life plans and the lengths they would go to in order to get rid of it, if they could.”

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