Tahrir Square and England’s Pompeii: The Week in Global-Affairs Writing

It’s getting sweeter in the South—and at one university in particular.

In recent years the rising cost of student debt has given birth to an odd phenomenon: a population of ostensibly generous older men who appear poised to solve the higher-education crisis, one student at a time. Once a relatively underground subculture, this benevolent group of men is coming to the rescue across the country, essentially volunteering to subsidize the students’ tuition costs. But that description could be, shall I say, sugarcoating it.

Yes, these men are ponying up their money—plus more—for financially struggling students. However, it’s not free money, and it’s not all students. In other words, these benefactors typically expect some compensation from their beneficiaries—students who generally tend to be women willing to accept the help from the men in exchange for providing some tender loving care. And, at least, flaunting their good looks.

“Sugar daddies”—the official moniker granted to these wealthy men—and the microcosm they occupy aren’t anything new, but they’ve become more mainstream in recent years. That they’ve emerged as a noteworthy group during America’s student-debt crisis is indicative of their growing prevalence—as well as that of “sugar babies,” the ones entrenched in that crisis. And the subculture—”daddies” and “babies” alike—appears to be expanding rapidly. 2014 saw a huge spike in sugar babies nationwide, especially in the southern states, according to new data from SeekingArrangement, a site where “babies” and “daddies” sign up and connect. The trend itself, let alone writing about it, might seem frivolous or demeaning. But the data could clarify what’s going wrong with the system and where those problems lie.

The latest figures on student-loan debt—now an average of $28,400 per person—are frightening. This number has steadily risen over the past few years, and, worse yet, it’s likely much higher than estimated considering only 57 percent of public and private nonprofit colleges volunteered to report their statistics this past year. Moreover, these debt figures exclude for-profit colleges, which are notorious for their especially high student debt-default rates.

What might have been little more than a nuisance in the past has turned into an outright hindrance to many students’ financial security: It takes about 14 years on average to pay off the debt. As a result, young women across the country are turning to sugar daddies in droves. Many of them use SeekingArrangement, which describes itself as “the world’s largest Sugar Daddy dating site.” More than 1.4 million students have signed up as members, including nearly 1 million in the U.S., according to the company. The website claims that 42 percent of its members are students, many of whom are incentivized by SeekingArrangement to join; people who sign up with a .edu email address or show proof of enrollment, for example, receive “premium memberships” for free.

The whole thing may seem shady, but in its defense SeekingArrangement has strict rules prohibiting the exchange of money on its site. It also apparently has an in-house team that does background checks on members. Understandably, the company is mired in controversy. One New York Post contributor even accused the sugar-baby industry of trying to justify prostitution, one of the many claims to which SeekingArrangement eventually responded with a disclaimer. Last year, the company set up a FAQ-esque page, “a refresher course in the definitions of Sugar” that aimed to delineate the so-called differences between sugar baby-ing and prostitution.

But for many, that’s all old news. Now, the latest data reveals not only that the phenomenon is spreading, but also that it’s gaining traction in certain areas much more than in others.

The University of Texas at Austin, in particular, saw a massive growth in sign-ups between 2013 and 2014. With a 227 percent increase the growth far outpaced all other schools in the country when it came to the sugar phenomenon, according to SeekingArrangement. In fact, according to the company, last year was the first time several Texas schools even appeared on the list. (Four schools in the Lone Star State made the most recent top-50 list). So while sheer sugar-baby numbers are important, growth rates are telling, too. Here are the top-five schools in terms of growth in sign-ups between 2013 and 2014: