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For Some Students Facing Looming Debt, "Sugar Daddies" are the Answer

(CBS NEWS) Candice Kashani graduated from law school debt-free this spring, thanks to a modern twist on an age-old arrangement.

During her first year, she faced tuition and expenses that ran nearly $50,000, even after a scholarship. So she decided to check out a dating website that connected women looking for financial help with men willing to provide it, in exchange for companionship and sex -- a "sugar daddy" relationship as they are known.

Now, almost three years and several sugar daddies later, Kashani is set to graduate from Villanova University free and clear, while some of her peers are burdened with six-digit debts.

As the cost of tuition and rent rises, so does the apparent popularity of such sites among students. But are they really providing financial relief, or signing women up for something more exploitative and dangerous than debt?

Kashani believes such sites are a "great resource" for young women, but others say these arrangements smack of prostitution and take advantage of women in a vulnerable situation.

Lynn Comella, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said that it is not unusual for students to turn to sex work such as stripping, prostitution or webcam work to pay for school. But the sugar daddy sites are relatively new, and she says not entirely upfront about what they are really about.

These arrangements are more vague than prostitution -- there is an expectation of material benefit but it is not always specified and sex is not guaranteed.

Ron Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University and criminologist with an expertise in the sex industry describes it as "prostitution light."

"Sugar Daddy" arrangements have existed for ages, and it's unclear if they are becoming more common because the phenomenon is not well studied. But experts say at the very least the internet has made these transactions far easier to arrange and negotiate.

"It allows you to hone in on what you want," said Kevin Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology at University of California San Diego who studies online dating. "You could argue it is just making the market more efficient."

Kashani says she sifted through many potential suitors before finding one she clicked with. She says she considers her sugar daddy one of her best friends and that they care deeply for each other.

"The people who have a stigma, or associate a negative connotation with it, don't understand how it works," she says.

But unlike most relationships, she is paid a sizeable monthly allowance that helps her pay for school.

U.S. undergraduate students last year finished school with an average of $35,000 in student debt -- a figure that has risen steadily every year, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert. The average graduate debt load is $75,000, and some longer programs force students into much deeper debt.

Many students say their loans don't cover the cost of living, and with rent skyrocketing in most major cities, they are left scrambling to make up the difference.

One graduate student at Columbia University in New York had a scholarship that covered almost all of her tuition, but not her living expenses. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the potential impact on her job prospects. She tried to make do -- sharing a room with a classmate and working a minimum wage job, plus any freelance work she could get. But still she struggled to pay her rent and utilities, and her grades suffered.

"That's just not why I am here," she said. "I wanted to find the most amount of money I could make for the least amount of effort."

So she found herself surfing Craigslist and Backpage.com and later, SeekingArrangement.com, the largest of the sugar daddy websites. Now she has two sugar daddies, one she sees occasionally and another who is more like a conventional boyfriend, except that he pays her a monthly allowance and helps rent her an apartment closer to him.

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