Alex Benda can see the finish line.
In a few months, the University of Michigan-Flint international business major will be striding across the stage at graduation.
But he's not focused on his diploma right now. Instead, he sees dollar signs — $30,000 in student loans that he'll be forced to pay off in the coming years.
"It's scary to think I'm about to go out into this economy and try to find a job and have all this debt I'll have to start paying," said Benda, 22, of St. Clair, Mich. "I started thinking, 'Do I have anything available I could sell?' "
He found something — the space on top of his graduation cap. Long used as an expression of thanks, school pride, or crazy artwork, Benda hopes to cash in on the 10-inch by 10-inch hat by selling the squares on top to anyone who will buy them.
It may sound far-fetched, but if he's able to sell all 100 squares — each is 1-inch by 1-inch — for $300 apiece, he'll have wiped out his debt.
Benda's campaign seems lighthearted but underscores a more serious national crisis: college affordability and the crushing student debt load that now tops $1.2 trillion in the U.S. — more than is owed on credit cards.
The majority of Michigan college students — 62% — leave school with some debt. At U-M-Flint, 71% leave with debt, and the average is $26,899. That's slightly below the state average of $28,840, which places Michigan the 10th highest of U.S. states for debt load.
Mike Williams, 57, of Warren said his daughter will graduate from Central Michigan University this spring with $25,000 in student debt.
"I think she had to go to college if she was going to get a good job, and I think it will be worth it in the long run, but starting out with that kind of debt right away is an awful big burden," Williams said.
It's a burden Benda is trying to avoid. He said the response to his graduation-cap-sponsorship opportunity has been good so far.
As of Friday afternoon, he had raised $1,200 from seven backers on the crowd-sourcing website he created athttp://gogetfunding.com/project/paying-for-college-1#/project_details.
"I aspire to be an entrepreneur and love out of the box thinking to solve everyday problems," he wrote on the website. "I realized that I would have the eyes of every graduating student and their family's on me as I walked across the stage to accept my diploma."
Benda said he'll only refuse something crude or offensive.
"There's a button in the middle, so I don't know how that will work with that square, but we'll make it work if someone buys it," he said. "If you want to buy four of them and put a little figurine up there on my hat, I'm fine with it."
Benda, the youngest of six children — one of whom died — grew up in a military family. His surviving siblings joined the military to help pay for school.
"That was never me," Benda said. "No one in my family has had the true college experience. I wanted to try it."
He applied for scholarships. He worked as a photographer shooting weddings and senior pictures. And he worked on the student newspaper — he's the editor now.
"I couldn't make enough to pay my college without working so many hours that I couldn't go to college full time," he said.
So he took out loans. And came up with an interesting concept to pay them back.
"My girlfriend thinks I'm crazy, but everyone has been pretty supportive," he said. "I like to try new things, to think differently. I think this does that."