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With limited options, many students and their families have little choice but to turn to Parent PLUS loans and private loans that account for  more than half of the debt incurred to attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). A recent donation to the Student Freedom Initiative plans to change all that, making the nonprofit a payment alternative to the current student loan structure.

The $50 million donation from Robert F. Smith, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, follows a historic gift to eliminate the student debt of all 2019 Morehouse College graduates.

“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, who is also the Board Chair of the Student Freedom Initiative. “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.”

It’s a lofty goal, but the plan is to make the Student Freedom Initiative program available to all qualifying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) juniors and seniors at all HBCUs over the next five years.  Every $10 million invested in the program will cover 100 new STEM students at HBCUs every year. The current goal is that six years from now, its program will be available to all qualifying STEM juniors and seniors at all HBCUs.

Equally important, the Initiative offers paid internships in a student’s area of study, tutoring/mentorships, and targeted HBCU capacity building.

“This is the only structure that we know of that has been built for HBCUs to support students at scale and that does not depend on the endowment of a university or funding by for-profit funders,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, CEO of UNCF and Board Member of the Initiative. “Robert F. Smith’s extraordinary philanthropy is a giant first step toward a self-sustaining pool of funds that we can invest in promising students, particularly those pursuing STEM careers.”

The Student Freedom Initiative will begin operations with 11 HBCUs that will be announced before the end of November. The program is intended to be made incrementally available to all qualifying STEM juniors and seniors at all HBCUs over the next five years, following the fall 2021 academic year.

The Initiative is expected to launch at up to 11 HBCUs and announced before the end of November. Click here for more information.

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