In 2019, entrepreneur, chemical engineer and philanthropist Robert F. Smith made history by making, not one, but two significant donations to a notable historically Black college or university (HBCU): Morehouse College. In January 2019, Smith donated over $1.5 million to create a scholarship program and establish an on-campus park to act as an outdoor study area for students. The scholarship fund, aptly named the Robert Frederick Smith Scholars Program, was established in his honor, with $1 million of the gift going to the fund. The park, which is located next to the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, was created with the remaining $560,000 and was established with input from the college’s students.
A few months later, in May 2019, Smith made one of his most generous donations to date. During his commencement address to the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College, he committed to eliminating their student loan debt, as well as loans of their parents for their studies. His gift totaled over $34 million and impacted the students’ lives in more ways than one. Without being burdened by debt, the students were able to buy homes, acquire wealth and pursue career and philanthropic endeavors that they otherwise would not.
While Smith is certainly not the only philanthropist to make significant contributions to colleges and/or college students over the years, he was certainly part of a trend that continues today. In May 2021 alone, five separate donations were made to colleges or college students to relieve the burden of loans for students or help improve programs within the school. Check out the following donations made in May 2021.
Delaware State University Provides Debt Relief to 2021 Graduating Class
In early May 2021, Delaware State University canceled more than $700,000 in student debt for 2021 graduates who faced financial hardship in the last year or so. The monetary relief stems from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, which provided $730,655 to the university. The school shared the monetary relief with over 200 students, with the average student qualifying for about $3,276 in debt cancellation.In addition to offering the 2021 graduating class debt relief, Delaware University provides all of its students an iPad or a MacBook. They have also not raised tuition in over six years and are replacing traditional textbooks with less expensive digital editions to help alleviate costs for incoming students.
Michael Bloomberg Donates $150 Million to Johns Hopkins University
On May 11, 2021, Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg Philanthropies made a life-changing announcement that would impact the lives of many students from underrepresented backgrounds. Together, these two organizations launched the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, which is intended to help address the historic underrepresentation of minority groups in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The initiative also helps prepare a more diverse generation of researchers and scholars, who will tackle leadership roles in math and science fields. The effort was funded by a $150 million donation by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, named for a John Hopkins University graduate, will allow the university to sustain a cohort of approximately 100 new Ph.D. students studying in one of 30 STEM programs. It will include active outreach to applicants matriculating from HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), offering each admitted student six years of a stipend, health insurance, travel funding, mentorship and research and professional development opportunities. Approximately $15 million of the donation will help talented undergraduates carve out a path to further pursue their studies at John Hopkins. As part of the initiative, partner institutions, many of them HBCUs and MSIs, will receive direct funding for some of their STEM programs. The Inaugural Partner institutions are Howard University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, Prairie View A&M University, Spelman College and the University of Maryland.
Billionaire Rob Hale Jr. Gives $1,000 to Each 2021 Quincy College Graduate
Like Robert F. Smith before him, the CEO of Granite Telecommunications, Rob Hale Jr., made a shocking announcement during his keynote speech at the May 22, 2021 Quincy College commencement ceremony. He stated that he was providing each graduating student $1000 in cash. The 490 students received two envelopes: one that read “give” and one that read “gift.” One of the envelopes, which contained half of the money, was intended to be used however the students wished. However, the other $500 was earmarked to be used to help society, paying it forward, so to speak. Hale told the graduates, “You have persevered in the pandemic, and you haven’t had a chance to celebrate the last 14 months, like you should. And you have seen society and the needs of society grow. We wanted to try to address both of those areas.”
Basketball Legend Michael Jordan Donates $1 Million to Morehouse College
Robert F. Smith is not the only public figure to make direct donations to Morehouse College. In late May 2021, it was announced that Michael Jordan and Nike’s Jordan Brand were donating $1 million to boost journalism and sports-related studies at the college. The gift is set to help fund scholarships, technology and educational programs in the aforementioned fields. Jordan’s gift follows a previous donation made by director and actor Spike Lee, a 1979 graduate of Morehouse College, who launched the journalism and sports program. Led by award-winning journalist Ron Thomas, the program has educated more than 600 students from Morehouse and the Atlanta University Center in sports journalism and athletics, and it has produced more than 80 graduates who now work in the sports and media industries, as well as almost 40 graduates who have earned master’s degrees in those fields.
Jordan’s donation is part of the Black Community Commitment. Conceived by Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand, the goal of the initiative is to turn the tide on systemic racism by focusing on social justice, economic justice and race education and awareness.
Wilberforce University President Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard Cancels Student Debt of Two Graduating Classes
Morehouse College graduate, Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, channeled Smith in late May 2021 as he canceled the student debt of the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes at Wilberforce University. Now the president of the HBCU, Pinkard eliminated all fines, fees and outstanding tuition balances for approximately 166 students, a gift that exceeded $375,000. Any federal and/or personal bank loans were not included in the donation, as the president did not have the authority to cancel loans paid to outside sources. Funding for the debt forgiveness came from scholarships supported by the United Negro College Fund, Inc., Jack and Jill, Inc. and other institutional resources.
But, these are not the first classes to receive aid. In spring 2020, all Wilberforce students were relieved of financial debt through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), set up through the CARES Act. This act provided emergency financial aid for colleges and universities, specifically helping students whose unpaid balances or school debts would prohibit them from registering for classes.
Robert F. Smith Provides Additional Donations to Support Universities
While Robert F. Smith’s donations to Morehouse College are what he is most known for, Smith has also made significant donations to other universities over the years, including his alma maters. For example, Robert F. Smith and the Fund II Foundation, of which he is the founding director and President, made individual contributions to Cornell University’s engineering school that totaled $50 million. The department was subsequently renamed the “Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering” in his honor. In 2017, Smith also donated $15 million to Columbia University to help complete the university’s $500 million fundraising goal to create the Manhattanville campus.
In 2020, Smith provided a $50 million personal gift, alongside a $50 million gift from the Fund II Foundation, to Student Freedom Initiative. Student Freedom Initiative is a nonprofit organization that aims to be a catalyst for freedom in professional and life choices for students. It provides students at participating schools with mentoring and tutoring, among other services, while also offering eligible STEM majors an income-contingent funding arrangement that can be an alternative to high-cost student loans. He also serves as chairman of the initiative.
To learn more about Student Freedom Initiative or Robert F. Smith, visit his page on the Student Freedom Initiative website.