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Need a college loan? Ask your friends online.

Websites are cropping up for peer lending, and at other sites, students can raise donations for college.

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But peer-lending sites are relatively new, and some have been on shaky legal ground of late. Prosper.com recently had to stop arranging loans until it registers with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which ruled that it is the seller of securities, since lenders expect a return.

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"If someone is wanting to make money off the loan, it's a business relationship," Mr. Shireman says. If the legal issues surrounding the loans aren't properly pinned down, "it's something to be really cautious of."

GreenNote is not registered with the SEC and doesn't need to be, Mr. Agarwal says. Prosper originated loans with a bank and then sold portions of those to loan purchasers, while GreenNote simply helps facilitate direct loans between family and friends, he says.

Gifts are less complicated. At CollegeDegreeFund.com, about 1 in 10 students who have posted profiles have received small gifts – typically ranging from $10 to $100, says cofounder Henner Mohr. Some of the donors are strangers who stumble across the profiles, not just the students' friends.

At GradeFund.com, students as young as 13 can receive education money in exchange for good grades, if they get sponsors. Joel Rojo, a Harvard University sophomore, is starting to pull in gifts for last semester's grades. His older brother pledged $200 for each A.

"It's kind of like that extra little push sometimes if you want to go out at night – or, do you stay in and study?... It does give a pretty good incentive," he says.

"The point for us is to get kids involved in their education, and potentially even contributing to paying for it at an earlier age," says Michael Kopko, who co-founded GradeFund.com with brother Matthew.

Mr. Rojo knows the gifts from his six sponsors won't take a big bite out of the roughly $50,000 in debt he expects to incur. "At least it will pay for textbooks or supplies or a new computer – the little essentials we often forget about ... but they actually do add up," he says.

Relieving debt burdens and tapping into graduates' interest in community service are the goals behind CharityForDebt.org. College debt "causes the most talented people that have the highest degrees to not be involved with the service-oriented employment in our country," says executive director and cofounder Jonathon Lunardi.

While awaiting official nonprofit status, it's been building up a network of donors, graduates, and nonprofits who could be matched for pilot projects in Dallas and Washington, D.C. Graduates would have their debt paid off at a rate of about $15 for each hour they worked with one of the nonprofit partners. They would submit a weekly portfolio online so the sponsor could see what they'd accomplished.

Finding sponsors is the main challenge for many of these websites. At GradeFund.com, for instance, 96 percent of those registered are students, while 4 percent are donors. But hope is not in short supply among these social entrepreneurs and the students drawn to their websites.

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