The Teen Who Funded His College Education By Asking People For Pennies

pennyThe term crowdfunding, a process by which a person raises money by asking others for small donations, has become popular online during the past few years. Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer individuals a platform from which to make their cases to an international community. Mike Hayes of Illinois used crowdfunding to pay for all four years of his college education at the University of Illinois. He asked strangers to send him a penny and received donations from all fifty states in the United States and across the world. But he did it long before the World Wide Web (See: Who Invented the Web) or crowdfunding websites; he did it in 1987.

Eighteen year old Mike Hayes graduated from high school in 1987 and enrolled in a science program at the University of Illinois. He had earned $2,500 from a job working at a drugstore, but that money would not go far to pay the four years of tuition and fees that added up to around $28,000 (about $57,000 today). His middle class family already put his four older siblings through college. While Hayes’s parents, his father a pharmacist and his mother a school teacher, would have helped him to pay, Hayes decided he did not want his parents going into debt for him.

Thus, he came up with the idea to convince 2.8 million people to each donate a penny to him. Towards this end, he approached famed Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene for help. Greene began his career as a journalist before becoming a nationally syndicated columnist with his column appearing in over 200 newspapers across the nation. He had worked for the Tribune for almost ten years when he received Hayes’s request.

Greene liked the idea and shared Hayes’s request with his readers on September 6, 1987. He told them who Mike was and why he wanted Greene’s readers to send him pennies.

“‘Just one penny,’ Hayes said. ‘A penny doesn’t mean anything to anyone. If everyone who is reading your column looks around the room right now, there will be a penny under the couch cushion, or on the corner of the desk, or on the floor. That’s all I’m asking. A penny from each of your readers.’”

Greene admitted that he and Hayes knew the biggest obstacle they faced was getting people to actually send in the pennies. So he encouraged his readers to put down the column they were reading and send a penny to Mike right then and there. He drove the point home by making sure to include Mike’s PO Box address, twice.

Hayes’ plan worked. Less than a month after Greene’s column was published, he had already received approximately $23,000. All of that money came in more than 70,000 pieces of mail and in the form of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters (many of which had to be hand washed to get the glue or other sticky residue used to attach them to the envelope off before they could be put in the bank’s automatic coin counter, which actually broke three times processing all the coins he was receiving).

Mike also received much easier to process checks and paper bills. Three people mailed checks for $100. The post office received so much mail one day that rather than count it, they simply quantified it in feet, and the postmaster reported to Bob Greene that at its peak there was 26 feet of mail in one day.

The money kept pouring into the PO Box, and Hayes ended up with more than the equivalent of 2.8 million pennies he needed to pay for college. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in food science and student loan free.

When he spoke to Bob Greene for a follow up on their original column, he said there was a thousand dollars left over after all his college expenses were paid. Hayes decided to give the remaining money to a college student from one of the families that sent him money. He and his family had kept a large portion of the letters, totaling about 90,000 in the end, and he decided he’d award the money via randomly selecting one letter from the pile and then contacting the person to see if they or their children had need of $1,000 for college. If they did not, he would draw another letter until he found a family that he could help.

In the end, Mike had this to say about the whole thing, “I just want to express my thanks to everyone… right now I’m feeling that the world is a pretty great place.”

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Bonus Fact:

  • Besides money, Mike also got quite a few college girls sending him letters with pictures and their phone numbers, including some from the University he was attending.  He even got a letter from Miss America 1983, Debra Maffett, saying how much she admired him. In the end, he claimed he rebuffed all advances as he already had a girlfriend back home who was a junior in high school at the time.
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  • MP

    This is WHY we TRULY cannot believe everything that we read. If this were all so easy, everyone would have been doing this. Also, people generally leave out crucial details in between and THINK that these other details are not important. I am SURE that he did not MERELY depend on pennies from others for his entire college education. This is probably some BS conservative mind set who wrote this article. Furthermore, we have NO idea who truly even wrote this article. There is no way of confirming that this is how this person actually saved or if this were the only means of how he saved. I did not have to read the article to know that people are LIARS and they like to embellish garbage to seek attention in the first place and that is how the internet has been. Young folks creating “gamer” tales about shaking magical dice for things to happen. There ARE Scholarships which would have been much faster to apply for than to seek pennies from folks. By the time these pennies were saved, he could have asked each of these penny donors if they could research ALL the scholarships that existed (5 neighbours, 50-100 scholarship offerings each) and this person would have had 500 different scholarships to choose from and would have, on the average of 100 , IF a neighbour is so willing to chip in and act so concern about the lad’s educational funding, would have produced a 100 scholarship applications at even 10 neighbours and buddies each and would have had at least 5 to 10 scholarships offered to this person at even 700 applications. 10 awarded scholarships would have easily paid for at least 3 years of education , depending on which university or college that this person is interested in. See the ridiculousness in all of this. And the neighbours and friends have their OWN children to support through college, so what on earth would they focus on this SOLE person’s ability to afford college if these people have their own kids to fund for college? ALL of it has the scent of bull-lockery all written on the main line.

    Maybe taking the time to apply for some worthwhile scholarships would be the ticket. Your ability to pay for college is not the only reason we get accepted to a college.

    We have to demonstrate that we have more than money to be a student worth educating. There is not enough information here to substantiate that this even happened and it really doesn’t matter because the time that it would take to PROVE this would be more time than any of us care to invest.

    Stick to something WORTH knowing that may help others realistically. Please.

    • Ben

      In the time you wrote that snark-o-gram you could have looked it up. Yes the story was published in 1987 and yes the Tribune followed up in 1991. Eat a bag of dicks.

  • MP

    And all of this is ASSUMED that this is even truthful at that. The entire idea for this only taught this person to beg and not to really apply for scholarships on his own and by the interactive help of this person’s community to gather scholarships offered in his choice of study. It also taught this person to not use his time in an organised function. And now we have another “student” of sorts, who will and IS being taught that he or she or whatever is entitled by the easy way out. It would have been much simpler to use a collective time economy approach that if one is going to beg for pennies to go to school, why not also get a summer job and PART-TIME AFTER SCHOOL (as the rest of us did) and apply to scholarships (as the rest of us applied) and to concentrate solely on getting on the National Honour Society through focus and devotion (not really a BAD idea) and to also volunteer to help others every summer to LEARN something about community and people to create a better transcript (again, earned through SCHOLARSHIPS and HELP from the student counsellor). OR get this go to a two year college through the THOUSANDS of scholarships offered for ANY race or any field of interest) and THEN transfer to an IVY LEAGUE university and save time and money and actually gain an education, instead of begging your way through life and wasting time begging for pennies all year. That may be the best plan ever. It proved so for the GEN X group, why NOT this next generation.

    Haven’t they written a book ” Scholarships for Dummies” or is it now ” Begging for Pennies for IVY LEAGUE universities for dead beats” ? I think that the latter will be the fastest seller.

  • Kelley

    I am surprised, well maybe not, at the negativity written about this article! What is wrong with a young man asking for people to send in pennies to help fund his college education! It was pretty genius actually and for doing it back in 1987 is awesome. To think there were that many people that wanted to HELP this young man pay for college is heart warming! If more people had positive attitudes today, the world would be a better place!