Robert Smith pledges $50 million to reduce student debt at HBCUs

Robert Smith pledges $50 million to reduce student debt at HBCUs

The Student Freedom Initiative has announced a $50 million gift from board chair Robert F. Smith to help reduce loan debt among students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Launched in June with a $50 million investment from Smith's Fund II Foundation, the programe will offer students a family-centric, income-contingent payment alternative to high-cost, fixed-payment debt, as well as supports such as paid internships and mentorships. SFI plans to raise $500 million for the effort and will begin operations in the fall of 2021 at eleven HBCUs, with an initial focus on juniors and seniors pursuing degrees in STEM fields; the names of the participating institutions will be announced in November.

Initially conceived as an effort to create on-ramps to twenty-first-century jobs, the initiative's focus shifted following Smith's $34 million commitment to eliminate the student debt of the Morehouse College Class of 2019 to systemic problems embedded in the current student loan structure. According to SFI, 65 percent of the wealth of African-American families is tied up in education-related debt. 

"Each year, thousands of Black graduates from HBCUs across America enter the workforce with a crushing debt burden that stunts future decisions and prevents opportunities and choices," said Smith, the founder, chair, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. "A college education should empower and prepare our next generation for a limitless future. The Student Freedom Initiative is a culmination of work that followed my gift to the Morehouse College Class of 2019. The $1.6 trillion student debt crisis in our country is a human rights crisis. The initiative is purposefully built to redress historic economic and social inequities and to offer a sustainable, scalable platform to invest in the education of future Black leaders. I urge others to join this important cause so that together we can liberate the human spirit."