More than 200 students in Wales are selling their companionship to cover university costs on an online dating app.
Seeking Arrangement connects so-called “sugar babies” with “sugar daddies” – younger people with older men.
A spokesman said students “can no longer depend on traditional means” of funding their studies.
But a higher education think-tank said “unscrupulous” men were taking advantage of vulnerable youngsters.
There are 75,000 students – both male and female – registered as “sugar babies” in the UK according to dating app Seeking Arrangement.
The company describes the arrangement as a “mutually beneficial relationship” which could include dinner dates, shopping trips and a monthly allowance.
Figures are based on email sign-ups, and makers of the company app say there could be more active student “sugar babies” using other email addresses.
Chief executive of Seeking Arrangement Brandon Wade said: “Young people understand the importance of a degree and want to achieve their educational goals but they can no longer depend on traditional means to get through school.”
It is claimed by the company that “sugar babies” could earn as much as £2,730 a month from meeting with their benefactors.
Cardiff University student Hannah, 20 – not her real name – said she became a “sugar baby” after finding she did not have enough money to cover her day-to-day living costs.
She said her first benefactor was a businessman from Germany, adding: “He did occasionally fly to London for business, and I said that I lived in Wales.
“So what ended up happening is that he made trips especially to see me in Cardiff from London.
“We had dinner in hotels, we would just talk, eat and have drinks and he gave me £750 just for dinner with him.”
But the man then asked her to join him in his hotel room. She declined.
They met a few more times after that first meeting, and she said he gave her £1,500 after they had spent the weekend together.
She said you have to constantly keep up with who you are speaking to online: “If you ignore them, they’re not really willing to come back, but it’s a lot of money, so you do have to keep in touch.”
“Unscrupulous men have found a way to exploit already vulnerable young female students, knowing they are desperate for the money,” said Dr Diana Beech, director of policy and research at think-tank the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Hannah said she knew there were always potential dangers when meeting men she did not know, and one particular experience made her reconsider her “sugar baby” lifestyle.
“We went for dinner at this restaurant in Cardiff, but he was acting very strange and he was very demanding with the waiters and he was very demanding with me,” she said.
“He said to me ‘you are going to eat what I choose for you, and you’re going to have this to drink’ and afterwards, he said ‘okay, back to mine now’ and I said ‘well we hadn’t discussed that’.
“He then responded ‘you don’t need to discuss it’.”
Hannah ended the date immediately and went home.
Responding to the experience, the makers of the dating app said they encourage users “to be upfront about what they want in a relationship” and want them “to feel empowered to discuss the terms of their relationships”.
Hannah said things might have ended differently that night if she was younger, but added: “I think that a lot of younger girls might not have enough common sense to do this; they wouldn’t perhaps think to tell someone where they’re going.
“I feel that if I did this when I was 18 and new to university I would’ve had that mentality that nothing bad could happen to me, that it was not real, whereas now I’m older I know it is very dangerous to just go and meet strangers from the internet just for the promise of money.”
She is not currently in touch with any “sugar daddies” and is concentrating on her university education: “All I want to do now is graduate with a good degree, but I do feel that there is a conflict now between being a sugar baby in the past and things that I can do in the future.
“I feel like people wouldn’t take you seriously if they saw that you’ve been a sugar baby.”
Cardiff University said: “The welfare of our students is an absolute priority and we would encourage anyone facing financial difficulties to seek advice from our Student Support Service.
“All of our students have access to a wide range of confidential, non-judgemental support services, including a means tested hardship fund and professional advice on a range of issues such as debt, money and relationships.”
A Welsh Government spokesman said that it could not verify the figures provided by the dating company and that it was not clear how many students were pursuing this source of income.
“Nonetheless, the Welsh Government recognises that money can be a challenge for some students studying at university,” he said.
“That is why, under our new system, we will help towards student living costs by providing the equivalent of the National Living Wage while they study.
“This means students can focus on their studies rather than worry about finances.”