University of Michigan student sells ad space on grad cap to pay college debt

By the time Alex Benda graduates from the University of Michigan-Flint this spring, he’ll have chalked up $31,000 in student loan debt.

So the 22-year-old business and entrepreneurship major came up with a novel idea: putting the space on his mortarboard up for sale in time for his graduation ceremony.

And if he can sell 100 1-inch squares to advertisers, at $300 each to fill up the 10-inch by 10-inch hat, he’ll have vaporized his debt.

“Everyone always puts pictures of ‘hire me,’ or ‘thanks mom and dad,’” Benda told Tuesday night. “I was joking, ‘someone should sell ad space on there,’ and it dawned on me, that’s what I should do.”

So last week, Benda, of Saint Clair, Mich., launched a website through which advertisers – or anyone who wants to donate – can send money to promote their business or cause when all eyes will be on him as he receives his diploma.

His website, posted on, had accrued $1,615 in donations as of Tuesday evening, with more than 100 days to go before his deadline on May 2.

No donation is too small, Benda says, and he’s offered a variety of rewards to sweeten the pot: a $1 donation will get you a high-five if you ever meet Benda; for 20 bucks, he’ll send you a hand-written thank-you note and a “badly drawn sketch of your choice”; and at $100, he’ll give you a five-minute phone call to talk about whatever topic you want.

How will anyone be able to read a 1-inch by 1-inch advertisement? Benda is counting on cameras to zoom in on his attention-grabbing cap during the graduation ceremony, and he'll also be posting images of it on his Facebook account.

The youngest of six children, one of whom died from cancer, Benda is the son of an Army soldier, and began a photography business at 16 to pay for his freshman year. Since he arrived at college, he’s been active in his fraternity, the student government and the university’s entrepreneurship club, and now edits a biweekly campus newspaper.

But he’s still uncertain about what he’ll do when he graduates – he says he wants to help people, perhaps working on marketing with small businesses – but he says he’ll take whatever work is offered to him.

“People always say McDonald’s is always hiring,” he said. “In my mind, no one is above a job.”