In the weeks before the fall 2022 semester, social media was abuzz with rumors of a new online service called Pollinate that allows students to pay their peers to drop out of certain classes to obtain an open seat themselves — now Pollinate has landed at Cornell. Students took to Sidechat and Reddit with complaints of classism and elitism.
Despite Pollinate’s increasing presence on campus, it was actually founded at the University of Chicago by two seniors, Jon Merril and Jack Ogle, studying economics.
“We focused on Cornell because we had friends who go to Cornell, and we heard that [enrollment in specific courses] was a problem there as well,” Merril said.
Merril and Ogle describe their service as “academic advocacy” for students who need extra help obtaining seats in particular classes that they could not obtain during their university’s scheduled enrollment period.
The duo is passionate about fixing problems students face on their college campuses. This passion has led them to pursue a few different business ideas.
Their first idea involved organizing Zoom meetings to facilitate student interactions and foster new friendships on their campus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students were not able to socialize as they normally would.
“We started to build software to connect students on Zoom meetings and help them study,” Merril said. “We really fell in love with the whole process of trying to make something that helps fix a problem, a pretty big problem, and the idea of a startup and trying to build software was really enticing.”
Soon after, the pair developed a system to motivate students to complete assignments by betting money on them. Merril and Ogle would bet against students and if the students completed their work before the date that they bet on, they would earn money. If the students did not complete their work before this deadline, they would owe Merril and Ogle money.
Their current software was originally designed to buy and sell seats in coveted classes.
“We thought intuitively, students who really want the class bad will offer some kind of money or some demand for students who are maybe considering already dropping, or this might maybe put them over the edge to say, ‘I’ll take that another time and give my spot to someone who really wants it,’” Merril said.
After some time, however, the two decided that a monetary incentive should not be the only way students can convince others to give up their seats in classes.
“We realized that a lot of students really needed the classes, but also were not super excited about the idea of having to pay for the spots,” Merril said. “So, we’ve switched to being more like advocates for the students who really tell us that they need the class, and we have been going to a nearby school, University of Illinois Chicago, and saying, ‘Hey, we’re advocating for someone who really wants this and we would like to offer you the chance to give them this class.’”
This service is designed to remove the discomfort or fear students face trying to convince professors to let them into a class by outsourcing the meeting to Merril and Ogle.
“We don’t care if people make fun of us. We don’t care if professors get upset because they think that we’re trying to get people to drop their class,” Merril said, “We are willing to… put ourselves out there and do this for people, because we want to solve this problem.”
One problem Pollinate faces is the difficulty of finding out which students are thinking about dropping a class. Ogle said that Pollinate has tried everything from advertising on social media to cold calling students on the phone to standing on the UIC quad with a sign.
Pollinate has been met with resistance. While Ogle said that Pollinate does not break any laws or University rules that they are aware of, and has not received any faculty or administrative complaints, some students have been vocal about their opposition to the service.
Some students raise a concern that the software is perpetuating elitism by allowing financially privileged students to buy seats from disadvantaged students.
Muna Mohamed ’24 said that she would never use Pollinate because the prices are too high and she is worried about how it affects her own ability to get into the classes she needs to graduate.
“No student is going to drop a class without some monetary incentive, so the advocacy thing is basically null,” Mohamed said. “This just encourages students to take up spaces in classes and keep them until they can get paid for it, even if they don’t need it. This does nothing but make class registration harder than it already is.”
Benson Wiedemer ’24 said that he thinks offering seats for money is a slippery slope, and that some may take advantage of the site to earn money.
“Core classes seem to be some of the highest valued classes on the site,” Wiedemer said. “This also opens up the opportunity for seniors and others with earlier enrollment periods to enroll in unneeded classes, just to sell them back to people with later enrollment periods.
Wiedemer also questioned the motives of Pollinate’s founders in creating a service that allows people to buy classes.
“This was not the intention of the founders, supposedly. The offering of money skews my belief [in] the reason behind the service. Any person, Any study, but for a price.”