A new book shows how some students in financial need are going to great lengths to afford rising college costs and basic necessities, including donating their blood plasma. Plasma, or the liquid part of the blood that sends nutrients and hormones throughout the body, can be used for life-saving treatments and therapies for autoimmune disorders. Journalist Kathleen McLaughlin depends on those therapies to treat a rare immune disease but discovered that the industry often relies on college students to supply them with the blood plasma they need to make those medications.
Writing for Teen Vogue, McLaughlin, author of the book Blood Money: The Story of Life, Death, and Profit Inside America’s Blood Industry (2023), discusses how students facing racial and economic inequities are donating their blood plasma not only to help save lives but also to afford education costs and basic needs.
The business of selling plasma
Paid plasma donation has evolved into “a common economic coping strategy among Americans with low incomes,” according to researchers at the University of Michigan. The number of plasma donation centers has grown from less than 300 in 2005 to more than 900 in 2020, and an industry that was worth $4 billion in 2008 is poised to reach $48 billion by 2025.
Nearly 80% of the plasma centers in the U.S. are located in the nation’s poorer neighborhoods, ABC News reports. Those areas include former industrial cities in Ohio and Michigan, the Mountain West, and the U.S.-Mexican border, McLaughlin explains in Esquire.
Plasma extraction centers in the college town of Rexburg, Idaho, near the Brigham Young University-Idaho campus—where McLaughlin interviewed student plasma donors for the book—pay students $25 for their first donation and up to $655 for a total of 10 donations per month. New donors in the first month they sign up can make $100 each time they give plasma, and a donor who never misses their twice-weekly appointments can make over $7,000 a year in Rexburg. Students show up to donate twice a week to make the maximum amount of money. Selling plasma is “just what we do,” one student told McLaughlin.
College students are not only among the millions of people selling plasma to make ends meet but are also specifically targeted because of their economic struggles, McLaughlin writes. “We demand that young people go to college to get the jobs that will lead them into comfortable lives, but the years of higher education themselves are increasingly difficult for most people to navigate financially,” she writes in excerpts of her book published in Teen Vogue. “This paradox forces students to make difficult and too-soon decisions about their wealth, finances, health, and bodies.”