Can HBCU alums help ease college debt burden

Many people are still stunned and excited by billionaire philanthropist Robert F. Smith’s announcement during his commencement speech at Morehouse College that he would make a donation so that the class of 2019 would graduate free of student loan debt.

“It is outstanding for those young men to have their debt erased,” said Melissa Harris, a professor of speech at Howard University. “Having an opportunity to start their lives with their degrees debt free is amazing for their community, because they can put that money back into Morehouse, their community, their families or themselves because they don't have that debt on top of their heads.”

Sharilyn Clark, who graduated with a degree in political science from Howard University in 2019, shares similar views to Harris. “I’m ecstatic billionaire Robert F. Smith is eliminating the student debt of those Morehouse graduates.”

“These graduates will be free,” Clark said. “They will start life in the positive, whereas most graduates are finishing their degrees in the negative. This will provide them with an opportunity to immediately gain, save and see the fruits of their labor. The trajectory of their and their families lives are now changed for the better.”

Wow! Billionaire Robert F. Smith surprises @Morehouse graduates by announcing this morning his family will eliminate the student debt of the entire class of 2019 with a grant. #PayItForward #HBCU

— Marcus Smith (@MarcusSmithKTLA) May 19, 2019

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Morehouse College’s average cost of tuition is $47,952 before aid and the average cost after aid is $33,184. Sixty-six percent of young men who apply to Morehouse are accepted, but only 53 percent of those who are accepted graduate. An aspect of this is due to the young men and their families taking out loans to complete their degrees.

Men such as Jordan Long of Oakland, California, have dropped out of the university because they cannot afford tuition. Long told that he was forced to drop out of Morehouse before his senior year in fall 2018.

Aaron Wiggins, a college student visiting Howard University’s campus from New York, was eager to share his thoughts. “I personally was excited for the students when I first heard about it,” Wiggins said. “They won’t have to worry about budgeting money when they do find their career choice to pay for the cost of their education. College should be free or at least less costly in the first place. Imagine if multiple billionaires came together, or if the government stepped in then student loan debt could be a thing of the past.”

College debt can cause delays in graduates finding careers, buying homes, and providing for themselves and their families. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, as of 2019, over 44 million borrowers owe $1.5 trillion in student debt loans, which is now the second highest debt in the United States behind mortgages.

Aziz Austin, a senior majoring in elementary education at Howard, said that graduating debt free can become normalized if alumni, whether middle class or wealthy, would give back more to their alma maters. They can donate money, pay off loans, make an impact, and push for programs that will help the current students succeed, Austin suggested.

“We need to see more of this from alumni, especially at HBCUs,” he said. “Generally, students who have to pay for school have to worry about how they are going to pay their student loans off. Instead of worrying about paying off their debt, they can try to find jobs, try to find their own place, etc. To me, it shows the alumni care.”

As for Morehouse College, they are appreciative of the offer from Smith, founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. “To be free from the financial burden of paying off student loans will be life-changing for the Class of 2019,” Aileen Dodd, senior media and public relations manager, said in a statement.

“Our Office of Business and Finance as well as our Office of Enrollment Management have been working diligently to calculate the student loan debt and other details of this gift,” Dodd said. “As soon as we have a final figure, we will share it with our new graduates so that they can continue on the path to careers and top-tier graduate schools student loan debt free.”

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