If it wasn’t for Bitcoin, Kyle Winstanley would be finishing out his senior year at the University of Michigan.
The 22-year-old engineering student caught the cryptocurrency bug in August, when his classmate, Spencer Porter, added him to a Facebook cryptocurrency discussion group. Within a few weeks, the two were hooked.
Winstanley says he was always interested in markets – during his freshman and sophomore year, he taught himself stock trading. And while at a marketing internship this summer, 21-year-old Porter says he stumbled on blockchain-based secure message platform Obsidian and decided to invest in its ICO. They soon began to network with other college students on Facebook, sharing market analyses and predictions.
“I logged over 2,000 hours in the last four months in research, charting analytics and data, and it’s really become a passion,” Porter says. “I wake up every morning and I’m excited to begin to learn.”
Much to the dismay of Porter’s roommates, the seniors converted Porter’s apartment into a Bitcoin trading room. In September, Winstanley started investing $200, while Porter contributed an additional $2,000 to the endeavor.
By December, the two had amassed about $15,000 – enough to convince Winstanley (and his parents) to drop out of school and pursue cryptocurrency trading full-time.
“I’m not opposed to trying to finish school and I’d love to have my degree at some point and come back and get it,” says Winstanley, now just one semester short of graduating. “But I couldn’t let this market happen again without my full attention on it.”
Winstanley and Porter represent a growing wave of college students who are being swept up by the seemingly easy riches in cryptocurrencies and are now speculating in the tokens. Volatile Bitcoin, the blue chip among cryptocurrencies, has climbed 15-fold in 2017. While only a rare few students make the leap to full-time trading, buying crypto is nearly as easy as sending money via Venmo and many students are shelling out spare cash in hopes of striking it rich.
Thirty-two percent of Millennials are likely to buy Bitcoin in the next five years, according to an October survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Blockchain Capital. And about one in four Millennials would rather own $1,000 of Bitcoin over $1,000 in stocks.
Sensing a growing trend, many universities — from Stanford University to the University of California at Berkeley to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — are now offering Bitcoin and cryptocurrency classes and student-run Bitcoin clubs are popping up increasingly popular.
Porter says he is reducing his course load, and expanding his senior year over two semesters instead of graduating in the spring. Today, he and Winstanley are coming at it with more capital. They’ve secured almost $70,000 – a mix of money from their fall semester profits and from family.
In the coming weeks, Winstanley’s Ann Arbor apartment will be converted into a trading hub, complete with a 10-by-10 foot projection screen and about 12 different monitors following trades on various crypto exchanges around the world.
“For those that have not stepped in yet, the window is closing,” warns Porter, a double major in digital media communications and cognitive science. “Wall Street and the big money has begun to enter. They are moving very, very fast.”
At the University of Florida, students in the newly-formed Gator Bitcoin Club meet periodically to educate each other about cryptocurrencies or hear lectures from professionals in the blockchain industry. They also find solace in trading together.
Club member Felipe Faria, 20, says he started investing $200 in Bitcoin four years ago, before he started school. Now, the sophomore computer science student says he’s made almost $7,000.
He reluctantly admits that he doesn’t have a part-time job – trading Bitcoin has become it.
“I believe the future is slowly moving away from the stock market 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. deal to 24-hour exchanges,” Faria says. “It’s definitely something I’ll be doing for quite a bit.”
At Berkeley, students have formed Blockchain at Berkeley, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, research and consulting for companies such as Airbus and Qualcomm. When the organization started in 2014, it had less than 10 members, says lead publications editor Melissa Mokhtari, a Berkeley senior. Now, they have about 100 student members, and an external Slack branch made up of about 1,800 community members.
Since the fall of 2016, the group has designed and taught three blockchain courses on Berkeley’s campus that students take for credit with an enrollment of about 120 each, says Mokhtari, Class of 2018 in applied mathematics. The group also runs a popular online cryptocurrency trading course.
New York University Professor David Yermack says his course, “Digital currency, blockchains and the future of financial services,” was one of the first cryptocurrency courses in the world when it started in 2014. Demand has grown so much that next semester, the course was moved into a 350-seat lecture hall.
“On college campuses, given how quickly these things are rising in value, there is an incredible curiosity about them,” Yermack says. “There is the allure of the ‘get rich quick.’ This is capturing the imagination of university students.”
Yermack, chairman of finance department at NYU Stern, said students are constantly asking him for advice on how to invest. Though he’s never invested, Yermack said he recently found out two of his four children have invested – his 13-year-old daughter in Bitcoin and his 18-year-old son in Litecoin.
Though he’s chosen not to invest, MIT MBA student Mark Weber say the craze has taken over campus. Weber is a project manager at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative, where students conduct research on blockchain and cryptocurrency, as well as host bootcamps and other education programs.
In his industrial economics class last week, Weber says, well-known economics professor Robert Pindyck asked his students what they wanted his final open lecture to cover. The overwhelming response from his 200-some students? Bitcoin.
“Even just in two years, and even just in three months, everybody is asking about it,” Weber, Class of 2018, says. “Everybody wants to talk about it.”