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Originally published Monday, January 30, 2012 at 7:22 PM

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'Sugar Babies' seek friendship — and help with tuition

Morally repugnant tuition option pursued by some.

McClatchy Newspapers

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MIAMI — Let's face it: Getting a college education, even at an in-state public university, isn't as cheap as it used to be. Florida students are increasingly being forced to work long hours, or borrow substantially, to pay for their degrees.

There is another financing option out there, however. It's one that many find morally repugnant, but at least hundreds of Florida students are doing it, according to one website.

It's called "sugar" dating — instead of footing the bill for those credit hours yourself, you find a quite-wealthy, somewhat-older "Sugar Daddy" or "Sugar Mommy" who is interested in both dating you and giving you a monthly stipend. The arrangement typically involves a mature gentleman (who is sometimes married) and a younger woman.

"It's all about communicating up front about what you want out of a relationship, and what you expect out of the other person," said Brandon Wade, founder and CEO of SeekingArrangement.com, a leading sugar dating website.

Others call Wade's business nothing more than thinly veiled prostitution.

For the women on SeekingArrangement.com, what they're seeking is often dollar-specific: as much as $10,000 a month, or more, to date a certain well-heeled man.

College students make up about 40 percent of the Sugar Babies on Wade's site, and when he compiled a list of the 20 colleges that represented the biggest source of signups in 2011, three Florida schools were among those to bask in this somewhat-dubious honor.

The University of South Florida led in-state schools at No. 7 (a total of 93 signups last year), followed by the University of Central Florida at No. 14 (67 signups) and South Florida's own Florida International University at No. 20 (59 signups). Administrators at all three schools had no comment. New York University occupied the No. 1 spot.

Sugar Baby profiles on the website rarely, if ever, list a specific college or university, but a search for Miami-area college students turned up results ranging from racy to pseudo-romantic. One 22-year-old woman boasted "I love Victoria's Secret and you will love the way my body looks in it," while a 21-year-old wrote she was pursuing a master's degree followed by a doctorate, and was hoping for "travels, friendship and help with tuition."

Within the subculture of so-called "sugar" dating websites — and there are lots of them — SeekingArrangement.com is one of the best known. The site claims more than a million worldwide members and has been profiled by numerous national media outlets, including ABCs "20/20" earlier this month. As college students have become a larger share of its customer base, Wade stepped up his courtship of this demographic through targeted advertising and by tracking the number of users who join with college-based ".edu" email addresses.

It is from that email tracking that SeekingArrangement.com compiled its list of the schools with the most 2011 signups. Wade admits the list doesn't account for those students who join under their personal email address, such as a Gmail account. But Wade still calls the list a reliable barometer, as many college students in fact use their .edu email accounts because doing so grants them perks such as a free premium membership upgrade, and certification as a "College Sugar Baby" on their profile. Profiles with that official college certification receive three times as many inquiries, Wade says.

FIU students who were asked about their school's No. 20 ranking were uniformly dismissive of ever using that type of dating site, though some female students said income is usually — and appropriately — a factor when they are assessing a dating partner.

"That reflects upon ambition, smarts ... you're looking for someone who's going to be stable," said Leyana Quintero, a 19-year-old international relations major.

Senior Yuleni Pulido, 24, agreed, while insisting that there's a huge difference between noticing what kind of car your guy drives and joining a "sugar" website.

"In a relationship, there's still feelings and emotions and integrity involved," Pulido said. Sugar dating, she said, seems "like a formal transaction."

Wade rejects the notion his website functions like a glorified escort service — escorts, in fact, are specifically barred from joining. A steady stream of prostitutes still try to become members anyway, however. Wade says about 10 to 20 escorts are removed daily.

Membership is strongest in big cities, as opposed to college towns, Wade said. Wade speculated this could be due to the higher cost of living in metropolitan areas, or the more-sizable supply of wealthy Sugar Daddies living there.

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