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The Student Freedom Initiative has announced its official launch of the initial cohort of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Participating institutions include Claflin, Clark Atlanta, Florida A&M, and Hampton universities, Morehouse College, Prairie View A&M University, Tougaloo College, Tuskegee University, and the Xavier University of Louisiana.

The Student Freedom Initiative provides science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors at HBCUs with opportunities to receive income-contingent funding in lieu of traditional college loans that have long wreaked havoc on their financial futures. These income-contingent agreements (“Student Freedom Agreements”) are based on a ‘pay it forward’ concept, meaning payments are only made when the individual is working.

Inspired by the 2019 gift by Robert F. Smith to Morehouse College graduates, the Student Freedom Initiative aims to alleviate some of the financial burdens Black students face. On average, Black students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees accrue $7,400 more in debt than their White peers.

“Through the Student Freedom Initiative, we hope to give Black students access to the education they need to move forward in this digital economy without the burden of student loan debt stopping them from realizing their fullest potential,” said Robert F. Smith, chairman of the Student Freedom Initiative. “While our community continues to face inequities that too often bar young students of color from accessing quality higher education, the Student Freedom Initiative aims to empower our students with the tools they need to control their financial futures.”

“The Student Freedom Agreement process was straightforward, even easier than FAFSA. It clearly laid out all the information of what the agreement was and wasn’t. It is literally freeing me from taking out more costly loans or spending all my time working to make ends meet. It’s truly a breath of fresh air,” said Deon Shaffer, an aerospace science engineering major at Tuskegee University.

“The Student Freedom Agreement is beneficial during a time when people are hard-hit by the economy,” added Emily London-Jones, former director of student financial aid and scholarships at the Xavier University of Louisiana. “Parents are not making enough money to pay down debts without facing the long, drawn-out forbearance penalties they face with the Parent PLUS loans. So, the students are now taking on that responsibility, and that’s a great thing.”

“We are taking a holistic approach to support and empower our students,” notes Mark Brown, executive director of the Student Freedom Initiative. “Not only are we providing our students financing to pursue their education, but the Student Freedom Initiative is also providing them with career development opportunities established through partnerships with Fortune 100 companies.”

Additionally, with the help of tech partners including Cisco and AVC Technologies, the Student Freedom Initiative is also visiting HBCU campuses throughout the 2021-22 academic year to provide free critical technology infrastructure upgrades. The Initiative and its partners will work directly with HBCUs to identify gaps between their existing infrastructure and the requirements identified by the Department of Education Federal Student Aid (FSA) program and install the necessary solutions to address these gaps and become cyber secure. To date, over 22 HBCUs have signed agreements to achieve Campus Cyber Security through infrastructure upgrades, with sign-ups continuing every day.

Together with Cisco’s contribution of $150 million, the Student Freedom Initiative has received over $250 million in pledges, including a generous contribution from the Walmart Foundation as part of its first round of grants for The Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity, and support from the United Negro College Fund. In addition, the program has been acknowledged and supported by the Business Roundtable’s Racial Equity & Justice Subcommittee on Education.

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