How Trees for Tuition is Helping Students Pay for College
In 2015 two 16 year old best friends, Jack Faught and Calder Johnson, decided to start their own Christmas tree business to earn a little extra money for college. They launched Trees for Tuition that year with only 30 trees available for delivery. The business has grown since that first season, returning to a lot at the Arizona Soccer Fields each year, and in 2021 they expanded to include a second location at Howard Middle School in Inman Park.
Jack, now 22, and Calder, who recently turned 23, have been friends since they met in first grade at Mary Lin Elementary. They grew up attending schools in the Atlanta Public School System, later Inman Middle and Grady High School – now Midtown High School – before enrolling at the University of Georgia where they lived together as roommates. Throughout those formative years, and despite the pressures of school and later college, Jack and Calder continued to develop Trees for Tuition. With each year they solved more problems, sought new opportunities, and found ways to differentiate their business from others in town.
“The free delivery thing was what really got us started,” said Calder. “People were interested and when we told our story; that we were two high school students saving up money for college… it seemed like a no brainer.”
Jack and Calder also offer tree stand rentals, a recycling program, and as of 2021 they launched a new website which makes ordering trees incredibly easy. These marketing efforts were made possible when Calder actually took a semester off of school and pushed his graduation to the summer in order to focus on developing their website and growing the business.
Their unconventional business model, and the fact that they almost exclusively hire high school and college-age workers for their lots, are not the only things that set Trees for Tuition apart from the rest.
“Last year we started donating to Achieve Atlanta which is a scholarship that benefits APS graduates,” said Jack. “We were able to donate almost $3000 last year, and this year we are starting our own scholarship with a goal of $8000 and we are hoping to blow that out of the water.”
Their initial goal would fund 4 scholarships of $2000 each, and applications are open to any APS senior or undergraduate college student who graduated from APS schools. Current students can apply today by visiting TreesforTuition.org. Their scholarship program does not have GPA or financial need requirements. Instead, recipients are chosen after they submit a short essay in which they explain how they wish to make the world a better place.
“During our senior year we were like, ‘ok we want to keep this going, make the brand sustainable, so how can we keep doing it?’ We arrived at the obvious conclusion of keeping the tuition aspect of the business going,” said Jack.
“We don’t want it to just be limited to tuition because the main expenses we faced when we were in college were rent and food,” Calder explained. “We want these students to be able to use the money for anything.”
While there are currently scholarship and grant opportunities available to students, the prevalent requirements of demonstrated financial need as judged by their parents’ bank accounts or their performance on standardized exams can be limiting. “Because how much money your parents make doesn’t always correlate to how much money you get for your college tuition,” said Calder.
If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of annual Christmas tree buying, consider this: instead of leaving your tree at the curb after the holiday season, those who opt for Trees for Tuition’s tree stand rental and recycling program can rest easy knowing their discarded tree will be turned into mulch and distributed at local parks throughout the Atlanta area. Additionally, their Tree for a Tree program aims to plant new trees to offset those that they sell. In 2020, through a partnership with One Tree Planted, Trees for Tuition was able to plant 450 trees in Uganda after their holiday season. Aiming for at least 2,000 trees in 2021, they are committed to finding ways to give back while also building their business.
“We are not a charity, it is a for profit business,” clarified Calder. “But it is a socially responsible company. We pay ourselves to operate this, because we have to live, that’s the opportunity cost. We could have graduated and gotten 9-to-5s, but we couldn’t have done this, too.”
During the 2020 season, in the midst of finals during their senior year at UGA, Jack and Calder were floored when they sold all 500 of their trees before December 1. “When we saw how quickly we sold 500, which is more than we had ever sold, we knew that this year we could really go big with this thing,” said Jack. They knew then that sourcing more trees was of paramount importance.
They have since lined up partnerships with farmers who have agreed to continuously supply their lots with new trees throughout the days leading up to Christmas. As an added bonus– they not only offer fragrant and beautiful Fraser Firs grown on 3000 beautiful acres in North Carolina, but through an exchange program with farms in Oregon, Trees for Tuition is able to carry Noble Firs as well.
“We are still just super involved in all the manual labor of it,” said Jack. “It’s a lot of hard work. We built all the stands and everything. We try to do everything ourselves.”
For a little more than a month every year Jack and Calder pull extremely long hours. Their normal schedule consists of shifts that last from 6am to 10pm. Perpetually covered in sap, oftentimes sporting a tree-related injury, these two remarkable young men are still somehow endlessly polite, helpful, kind, and hoping to make the world a better place, one Christmas tree at a time.
Originally written for Homestead Stories