The headline was shocking: “1 in 5 College Students Are Blowing Their Financial Aid Money to Invest in Cryptocurrency.”
There was just one problem: the writer of those surveys, Drew Cloud—who’s also purportedly founded and edited SLR since 2016—doesn’t exist.
“We used this character of ‘Drew Cloud’ as the primary author of the site—a shared pen name through which we could share experiences and information related to the challenges college students face while funding their education,” LendEDU CEO Nate Matherson wrote in a statement.
Until he was unmasked, Cloud routinely pitched stories and offered email quotes to journalists. His website also featured an elaborate backstory and a photo (which actually showed one of Matherson’s college friends, an SLR spokesperson told Observer).
“He always had a knack for reporting throughout high school and college where he picked up his topics of choice,” Cloud’s biography read. “Since his graduation from college, Drew wanted to funnel his creative energy into an independent, authoritative news outlet covering an exclusive and developing industry. Thus, the Student Loan Report was born.”
But by Monday, Cloud’s online profile had evaporated and his bylines were replaced with “SLR Editor.”
The spokesperson said the site will add an editor’s note or correction explaining the issue on all of Cloud’s posts. Many outlets that quoted him took this step as well.
SLR also didn’t disclose its affiliation with LendEDU, even though the parent company was mentioned in nine stories. Cloud often suggested people refinance their student loans, coincidentally a service offered by LendEDU.
Matherson said LendEDU kept the connection secret because the news site was “a side project” for the lending group that wasn’t monetized with ads. Indeed, only 8,000 people visited the SLR site last month.
Even so, this “side project” got plenty of publicity—mostly for its eye-catching surveys.
SLR often asked students dramatic hypothetical questions about their student loans, such as “Would you take a punch from Mike Tyson” or “Would you contract Zika virus” to get rid of loan debt.
And it seemed like many students would go to these absurd lengths.
According to SLR, 62 percent of respondents would star in a porn film to get rid of their debt, and 43 percent would hook up with Caitlyn Jenner.
But it was the student loan cryptocurrency story that raised the most eyebrows. It seemed like even more proof that Millennials weren’t financially savvy.
“Could they have used, spent, or even saved, this money more prudently?” the story read. “Absolutely.”
Chronicle reporter Chris Quintana wrote a story casting doubt on the survey results, however. That sent him down the Drew Cloud rabbit hole.
“I had reached out to ‘Drew’ regarding the Bitcoin survey because the results seemed extraordinary,” Quintana told Observer. “And when I got ahold of an email that stated plainly that LendEDU had started the Student Loan Report, the site Cloud claimed to have started, I knew something was off.”
It’s a good reminder for consumers to take everything they read (especially about finance) with a grain of salt.